The Land God Gave to Cain by Hammond Innes (1958)

‘He’ll be dead anyway by now.’ Laroche said …
‘But he wasn’t when you left him, was he?’ I asked …
But he didn’t seem to notice my question, or else he didn’t care whether I knew or not. He sat, staring down at the embers, lost in thought, and I wished I could see into his mind. What had happened after the crash? What in God’s name had induced him to say Briffe was dead when he wasn’t?… As though conscious of the thought in my mind, he suddenly raised his head and looked at me. For a moment I had the impression he was about to tell me something. But he hesitated, and finally got his lips tightened into a thin line and he got abruptly to his feet and walked away. (p.190)

Frustration and delay in the novels of Hammond Innes

Having read five in a row I have good feel for Hammond Innes’ adventure novels, and am concluding that their key characteristic is the wilful refusal of a central character to tell the story at the heart of the narrative, and the slowness or obtuseness of the narrator to confront that wilfulness and drag the story out of them. Innes’ novels are made up of lengthy delays.

By the time this book was published in 1958 the new kid on the block, Alistair MacLean, had published three novels and was beginning to crystallise the formula which would make him one of the bestselling authors in the world by the mid-60s. In MacLean novels the sequence of events is fast and furious with the protagonist thrown into perilous situations almost from the first page and then finding himself in almost continuous physical danger. In addition, there is at least one if not more profound twists in the story which (thrillingly) transform your understanding of what’s going on. X turns out to be a spy or an agent or to have known all along that Y was a traitor, and to have made cunning counterplans in advance. But Y has anticipated this and laid cunning counterplans etc. The author is always two or three clever and unexpected steps ahead of the reader.

Innes’ novels are very strong on setting and atmosphere, but I’ve come to realise a central characteristic is that the reader spots what’s going on, or sees the danger signals, way before the central protagonist. There are two aspects of this: the protagonist is slow to the point of being dim; and a key figure who knows the secret of the riddle at the centre of the plot just obstinately refuses to reveal it, unnecessarily prolonging the agony (and the text). Thus:

  • The White South Narrator Duncan Craig is slow to realise just how dangerous the spoilt millionaire’s son Erik Bland really is until it is too late and they’re all marooned on the ice. Even then he continues to be forgiving and understanding of Bland who goes on to try and kill everyone. The reader is screaming, ‘Let the bastard die’, while Craig continues to err on the side of kindness, with the result that a lot of innocent people die.
  • The Angry Mountain (1950) Narrator Dick Farrell is extremely slow, almost retarded, in figuring out that his Czech friend has smuggled industrial secrets to the West in his artificial leg (!), and then very stupid in allowing himself to be seduced by the Contessa into going up to a remote and isolated villa, where he can be cornered by the evil doctor.
  • Air Bridge (1951) Narrator Neil Fraser is criminally slow in realising that the man he gets mixed up with, Bill Saeton, is so obsessed with building and flying a prototype plane that he is prepared to lie and betray and eventually murder his best friends to do so. Whenever he has to make a decision, Fraser makes the obtuse and dim and slow one.
  • The Strange Land (1954) Narrator Philip Latham is particularly frustrating: despite scores of pages of half-baked questioning, he fails to realise the real motivation of his guest, Dr Kavan, until it is far too late. On a larger scale, the European characters all hopelessly fail to understand how angry the Berber community has become until tragedy strikes causing a lot of unnecessary deaths.
  • The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1956) Narrator John Sands spends hundreds of pages quizzing Patch, the haggard captain of the Mary Deare, who is obviously hiding something but, frustratingly, refuses to come clean and simply tell the story – which could be done in a paragraph. Instead, he lets it leak out in dribs and drabs over a hundred pages with the result that several people die unnecessarily.

My point is that Innes’ narratives exist largely because they consist of frustration and delay. MacLean’s race at hurtling speed through peril and revelation and plot twist after plot twist. You need two hundred pages to recount and explain the concatenation of twists and turns, they’re so complex and full of thrilling surprises. Innes’ novels, in sharp contrast, consist of hundreds of pages of dim-witted delay, where the reader is way ahead of the story-teller and continually frustrated, yelling at the thick-headed narrator, ‘Watch out he’s a psycho’ or at the Obstinate One, ‘For God’s sake, just tell everyone what happened.’

The Land God Gave To Cain

And so it is, again, in The Land God Gave To Cain. The first-person narrator is Ian Ferguson. He’s working on an airfield in the west of England when he gets a message from his mother to come back to London. His father has died. His father was injured in the War and lived the last few years in a wheelchair but was obsessed with his hobby of being a radio ‘ham’ – communicating with other radio enthusiasts round the world via a set in his attic. Ferguson’s mother said she heard him shout something and, when she rushed to the attic he was standing, for the first time in years, and pointing at the map on the wall – before falling to the floor and passing out, never to regain consciousness. On the wall is a map of Labrador, the north-eastern province of Canada. Ferguson is intrigued. He goes back over his father’s notebooks and, in among all the scribbles and doodles, discovers a mystery.

His dad had been following the radio broadcasts of an expedition into the barren interior of Labrador, as relayed by a radio ham in Goose Bay named Ledder. Something had gone wrong, the plane had crashed, two of the expedition (Baird and Briffe) were badly injured. A week later the injured pilot, Bert Laroche, stumbled out of the wilderness reporting Baird and Briffe were dead. But Ferguson’s father’s notes seem to indicate he picked up a radio transmission from Briffe – one of the supposed dead men – one week after they’d been reported dead.

The narrator is slowly gripped by the enormity of this and, back at his airfield, discovers one of the pilots he’s matey with (Farrow) happens to be flying to Canada that day. On the spur of the moment he hitches a lift to Labrador, to Goose Bay. Here he meets the radio ham whose relays his father had monitored, who is sympathetic but doesn’t believe his father received the fateful broadcast. Farrow agrees to fly him north to the base from which the expedition set out, to what was once the small village but is now the iron ore and railroad boom town of Seven Islands.

As usual, Innes is excellent at conveying the barrenness of the landscape and the weird disconnected feeling Ferguson has, arriving from warm safe England into a bleak wasteland populated by rough, tough frontiersmen. But when Ferguson meets officials of the iron ore prospecting company and the railroad company which are exploring the barren north, they present him with a barrage of evidence that Baird and Briffe must be dead and that his father couldn’t have received a transmission from them. But the more compelling their argument the more Ferguson becomes determined to vindicate his dead father.

The iron ore people drive him firmly back to the small airfield and organise his ticket for the flight back to Montreal and then back to England. Get on it! Stop messing with things you don’t understand! But Ferguson discovers another flight is leaving for camp 224 to the north, one of the many railroad settlements which don’t even have names, just numbers. In a tense scene he switches tickets and fools sceptical flight officials to let him on the northbound flight.

Here, at camp 224, he confronts the pilot, Bert Laroche, on whose testimony the whole thing hinges. This scene, around page 110 of a 250-page book, is immensely frustrating. Exactly like Kavan in Strange and Patch in Deare, the pilot is the Obstinate One – the only character who knows what happened (and who could wind up the mystery and therefore end the novel, in a few words) but, irritatingly, refuses to give a straight answer. Instead, he displays all Innes’ characteristic delaying tactics. He looks distracted, mumbles, breaks off, stares into the distance ‘as if reliving those moments’, then shambles out the room. You want to grab him, slap him and just get him to tell the truth: were his two colleagues definitely dead when he left them? Why is he lying? What is he covering up?

Meanwhile, fulfilling his role of Dim Narrator, Ferguson slowly discovers that his grandfather was involved in an expedition to this very same part of the country in 1900 – the Freguson Expedition. There was some kind of disaster and the Canadians claim that Ferguson’s father inherited the shame of that expedition, and that is the reason for his obsession with Labrador, with this expedition in particular, and what led him – they claim – to hallucinate these final messages from men who are officially dead. The bosses of the ore company and then the Obstinate One are amazed that Ferguson knows nothing about this crucial part of his family history.

I couldn’t sleep, for my mind was too full of Laroche’s visit. His manner had been so strange, and the tension in him; there was something there, something I didn’t understand, some secret locked away inside him. The way he had said: I suppose you think I killed them. And that interest in the Ferguson expedition – it was almost pathological. Or was his manner, everything, the result of his injury? All I knew was that he’d left Briffe alive and that I had to find somebody who would believe me – or else locate this Lake of the Lion myself. (p.112)

You can see how Innes has thought that the narrative will work well if the narrator not only reveals the secret of what happened to the contemporary expedition but, alongside it, learns about the historic expedition of 1900; that gives a neat parallelism to the narrative. But, unfortunately, in practice (ie the actual experience of reading) it has the effect of making Ferguson seem almost ridiculously thick.

Padding

And then there are a lot more circumstantial incidents from page 110 to about 200. I think this is another feature of Innes’ novels: a great deal of detailed goings-on which don’t really affect the basic story.

For example, in Mary Deare the 100 central pages are about the long enquiry into the shipwreck. It’s OK if you like detail of court procedures and pen portraits of barristers, judges, court officials and so on, in fact it’s rather interesting and very well drawn. But this long sequence, two-fifths of the novel’s total length, doesn’t really advance our understanding of the plot very much. The ‘plot’ – what happens to the main characters – treads water, is on hold, while this circumstantiality pads out the story.

Similarly, in Land, Ferguson travels north to the end of the line. Literally – to the place where the railway which is under construction peters out into wilderness. And he encounters various people along the way and has typically inconclusive Innes conversations with them. But nothing really advances the plot.

In Deare the enquiry is just a very long way of leading up to the finale ie the chase across the Channel to the wreck; it sets the scene, gives a bit more background, and gives the whole text a kind of rootedness in reality which is then the springboard for the melodramatic climax.

So, in Cain, there are a lot of incidents – Ferguson hitches rides on trains, bumps into the Company man Lands, avoids Lands, bumps into him again, bumps into Laroche again, sees him leaving on a train, then meets him again at a camp up the line, meets an older frontiersman named Darcy, goes for a drive with him, comes back to the camp, encounters Laroche again – and so on and so on and so on; there are numerous meetings and avoidance of meetings, and inconclusive conversations and broken off conversations and conversations where people never quite spit it out.

I think that, as with the Deare enquiry, since these divagations don’t really advance the plot one iota, their purpose must lie elsewhere: in the creation of ‘atmosphere’. The blurb on the back of the book repeats the statement made in the Foreword that Innes travelled some 15,000 miles around Labrador in researching this book, going by railway, road, floatboat, helicopter and on foot. I think, then, that the scenes in Goose Bay, at Seven Islands, and at various construction camps along the railway, the numerous scenes where he eats in big canteens with the workmen or rides the train north, or steals a small speeder engine, or gets out and walks 10 miles or so as darkness falls until he is forced to lie down and sleep in the wilderness, before he is – fortunately – discovered by big Ray Darcy and taken to his camp to eat hot food and explain himself — all these well-described scenes, which don’t advance our understanding of what’s going on by one inch, are all here to create verisimiltude: to powerfully convey the hard work of building a railway through frozen wilderness – and to add plausibility to Ferguson’s odyssey into the heart of the north to vindicate his father.

However, in this reader’s opinion, it fails psychologically. It paints the scenery alright, and the life of the tough men carving through the wilderness. But it fails to persuade me that an educated 24 year-old Englishman would read his deceased father’s old notebooks in London, then hitch a plane ride to an isolated community in Canada (Goose Bay), then on to a construction boom town (Seven Islands), then lie his way onto a plane north to a construction camp, then steal a ‘speeder’ train to head north up the line and evade the authorities he knows are after him, then abandon the train and set off on foot across wilderness towards an even more isolated camp – all this with no clear plan at any point in the journey, except the dumb obstinate intention of proving that his father did receive a message from a man the authorities are convinced is dead.

There are no clever twists or revelations, nothing that suddenly proves him right and convinces him to go on. Just this dumb journey – and I don’t buy it.

Climax

Eventually, finally, something actually happens – which is the that main characters finally all arrive in one of the forward camps of the railway, on the edge of the wilderness, and decide they will trek inland to try and find the damn Lake of the Lion where Laroche crash-landed, where Briffe will be – if still alive – and where (cue spooky music) the ill-fated expedition of 1900 met its doom.

(It is very characteristic of Innes that it sort of happens twice, because they first of all set off by helicopter to find the lake, but are turned back by a ferocious snowstorm. It is very Innes that this is a) vividly described b) inconsequential – they don’t get as far as their destination and nothing surprising or important is revealed. It is absolutely inconsequential to the plot except to add a bit of realism, that they’d try to make the journey by air before taking the bigger risk of going on foot.)

(These books feel more like adventures than thrillers. Thrillers need to thrill, to make you tense and alert that revelations or threats can occur at any moment by the simple technique of peppering the story with scary threats and surprise revelations. In this novel there is no threat whatsoever for the first 200 pages, except that Ferguson might do something stupid like crash the train he steals, or wander off into the wilderness and die of exposure. And there are no thrilling revelations, no sense of a complex conspiracy or plot which our man is unfolding. Just lots of description of a railway being built in north Canada.)

Setting off are Ferguson, the suspicious-acting pilot Laroche, his girlfriend who just happens to be the daughter of the missing man, and the older, sympathetic frontiersman, Ray Darcy. They gather all the equipment they’ll need for a five-day trek into the interior, just as the weather warnings arrive of a snowstorm coming in.

Will it end well? Will they discover Briffe, the survivor of the wretched air crash still alive after weeks in the frozen interior with no food or drink? Or will one of the members of the expedition sabotage it, as Ferguson’s grandfather’s expedition was sabotaged? And what the hell is really going on? Why is everyone so nervy about what on the face of it is a simple accident? Is someone hiding something? And if so, what?

Spoiler

They finally arrive at the place where the floatplane supposedly crashed and the Big Secret is this: the plane landed in bad weather on a lake: they made a camp ashore where Briffe (Paule’s father) discovered gold nuggets. He went mad with gold fever and attacked his colleague Baird with an axe, killing him. Laroche fled into the wilderness and took a week to arrive back at a forward camp, barely alive. Yes, Briffe must have made the transmission on the radio, which was unloaded from the plane with other stores before Briffe went bonkers. But now they arrive to find him dead from exposure.

That’s what happened. Laroche reported this to the head of the iron ore company and they took the decision not to tell the truth but to concoct the lie that the plane crashed and both men died, in order to save everyone’s reputations and the feelings of Briffe’s daughter. That’s the sum of the conspiracy which Ferguson takes 250 pages to uncover.

Oh and they find the body of Ferguson’s grandfather up under some rocks, shot in the head as they already knew from all the reports of the 1900 expedition. Absolutely no surprises.

The descriptions of the Labrador landscape and the explanations of how a railroad is built across frozen wilderness are very readable. But almost all the scenes involving people, where those in the know refuse to reveal this feeble deception and Ferguson fails to have the character to force them to come clean, become almost intolerably frustrating.

Related links

1963 Fontana paperback edition of The Land God Gave to Cain

1963 Fontana paperback edition of The Land God Gave to Cain

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes (1956)

After that I was conscious all the time of the dinghy behind us. I can see it still, like a deadly water-beetle crawling after us across the sea, everlastingly following us through an unreal miasma of fog; and I can hear the creak of the rowlocks, the dip and splash of the oars. And I can see Patch, too, his set face leaning towards me and then pulling back, endlessly moving back and forth as he tugged at the oars, tugged till his teeth were clenched with the pain of his blistered hands, until the blisters broke and the blood dripped on the oars – hour after wretched hour. (p.216)

This is a really gripping and exciting adventure story. If I were to recommend one Hammond Innes novel to anyone who hadn’t read him, this would be the one.

The plot

It’s a first-person narrative told by John Sands. He is skippering a yacht, the Sea Witch, across the Channel with three friends, when they are nearly run down by a vast cargo ship, the Mary Deare. A few hours later, in daylight, they spot it becalmed west of the Channel Islands. Coming closer they see the lifeboats have all been launched, their ropes trailing down the sides into the sea. In a reckless moment Sands gets his friends to sail right up to the side of the steamer, manages to grab a rope and haul himself aboard. The mystery begins.

Part one – the wreck

He goes from one end to the other of the ship finding everything eerily quiet and abandoned. He reads the ship’s log in the empty bridge, the letters in the captain’s cabin and so on. All very well done and spooky. Suddenly he hears footsteps, faint and faraway, and tracks down the haggard, exhausted master of the ship, Patch.

Through Patch’s rambling narrative and from the log, Sands pieces together the story: the Mary Deare, a decrepit wreck of a cargo ship, is shipping cotton and old aero engines from the Andeman Islands to Antwerp, then was going on to Newcastle to be broken up. But the voyage has been dogged by disaster. Successive storms kept flooding the holds. Then the original captain, Taggart, died and was replaced by Patch. More storms and Patch slowly realised the mate Higgins was in a conspiracy to sink the ship. The owner of the shipping line, Dellimare, was lost overboard. The radio was put out of action in a fire. Then Patch was lured down into a hold and knocked unconscious, while the conspirators among the crew persuaded all the others to abandon ship. By the time Patch escaped he found himself the only man aboard.

Sands decides it’s time to leave but he has left it too late. A gale has whipped up and, try as they might, his friends can’t get the Sea Witch into position without risking smashing her against the huge ship. They say they’ll rendezvous at St Peter Port and  sail off, and Patch hauls Sands back aboard. He is trapped on a massive ship which is slowly sinking. He and Patch try to get the engines working again and there are terrific scenes of them taking it in turns to stoke the furnaces with coal.

In fact, the opening hundred pages of the novel are wonderfully atmospheric and gripping, with keen descriptions of the sea, the gale and storm, the huge ship foundering, the terrifying sense of abandonment, the claustrophobic scenes stoking the furnaces down in the engine room. All the time Sands finds it almost impossible to get a straight answer out of Patch, who is shattered, distracted, elusive. And it is his bad-tempered refusal to talk plainly which dictates much of what happens next.

Without telling Sands his plans Patch uses the ship’s remaining power to navigate deliberately into the heart of the Minkies, the treacherous reefs off the French coast. He runs the ship aground among the reefs, then they take to an inflatable dinghy, float for a while and are picked up some hours later by coastguards on the lookout for survivors. The ship’s crew has already been rescued, the newspapers have the story, the authorities interview Patch and Sands who, for the first time, meets the hulking aggressive mate, Higgins, who Patch blames for everything.

Part two – the enquiry

The middle section of the novel is devoted to a long, realistic and thorough account of the official enquiry which is held into the fate of the Mary Deare at the request of the insurance company. The court, its procedures and its officials, especially the barristers, are described in minute and convincing detail, emerging as characters in their own right.

Innes uses this setting to skilfully reveal aspects of the events which occurred before Sands stumbled across the ship, going back to the formation of the company which had bought the Mary Deare for its ill-fated last voyage. Because the narrator is biased in favour of Patch, having seen the character of the man under stress as they spent those last 12 or so hours trying to keep the ship afloat, he is inclined to favour Patch’s evidence and discount the evidence of the ship’s crew and owners. However, Innes gives Sands a friend – Hal – accompanying him throughout the enquiry and, through his eyes, we can see how Patch fails to make key points which Sands and we, the reader know about. Through Hal’s eyes we see the evidence slowly mount up against Patch, creating the strong impression that it was he who wrecked the ship.

This is crystallised when the court hears the account of how Patch lost another ship, ten years earlier in his career. Rumours at the time suggest he wrecked it for money, rumours which ruined his career and made it impossible for him to get another captaincy. This blot on his career, combined with all the testimony against him, begins to make Patch look like the guilty man. That night he is seen drinking heavily in pubs of Southampton (where the enquiry is taking place) and doesn’t show up in court next day.

In any case, the enquiry is called off with the dramatic news that French coastguards have sighted the Mary Deare still afloat. Sands returns to the yacht he and his friend Mike are refitting in a dock at Lymington determined to get on with his life when he and Mike are astonished to see Patch swimming out to them and clambering on board.

The conspiracy

By now, and despite Patch’s obstinacy and obfuscation, Sands has pieced together the master narrative behind the plot: Patch is convinced the owners of the Mary Deare are crooks; the small company which owned it had recently been taken over by a big-time operator in the Far East; the ship’s manifold said it was carrying a cargo of hundreds of unwanted fighter plane engines back to England; but for four crucial days the ship was moored alongside the company’s only other ship in Rangoon river; Patch thinks the engines were switched to the other ship which then sailed behind the ‘Bamboo Curtain’ ie the engines were sold to the communist Chinese. The Mary Deare was supposed to sail west and be sunk somewhere convenient; hence the presence of the company owner on board to make sure the plan was carried out; but they reckoned without the alcoholic captain Taggart who, for sentimental reasons, was determined to make it home to his dear sweet daughter in England; they reckoned without the first mate going sick and being replaced by Patch; and they reckoned without Patch’s almost unhinged determination not to let a second ship of his be wrecked. The conspirators thought Patch would be a drunken pushover; in the event he turned out to be an immoveable stumbling block. Eventually, the conspirators among the crew, led by Higgins, set fire to the ship, sabotaged the radio, knocked Patch out in the hold and abandoned ship trusting it would sink.

But it didn’t. And that was where Sands entered the picture, all innocent of this complicated situation and the history of everybody’s motives, especially the haunted determination of captain Patch not to lose another command. Now Patch is driven by one obsessive desire – to get back out to the Mary Deare, caught on the treacherous reefs of the Minkies, and to prove that what happened to her was no accident.

Part three – the Minkies

Against the advice of his partner Mike, Sands agrees to take Patch out on their yacht to the wreck of the Mary Deare. But even as they weigh anchor and begin to motor out of the harbour (late at night), they become aware of a powerful motorboat entering. Suddenly suspicious, they turn off their motor and glide out under sail but not before they’ve glimpsed that the motorboat is captained by the brutal First Mate Higgins and two of the surviving crew. Mike and Sands debate outsailing them down the coast and putting into the next available harbour – but the presence of Patch would go against them – they might be charged with harbouring a fugitive. This, along with the close emotional bond Sands has formed with the obsessive captain, makes them decide to go out to the Deare – and so into the violent and tense climax of this thrilling book.

The final 40 or so pages are a gripping and gruelling description of Higgins’s motorboat chasing Sands’s yacht across a stormy Channel. It covers days of accidents and adventures during which the human protagonists are stripped of all resources and reduced to the level of animals barely clinging to life. For dawn brings a thick fog and in it the yacht and motorboat collide, sinking both. Both crews get into rowing boats and there follows a numbingly detailed and drawn-out test of endurance as they chase each other into the treacherous white water among the reefs of the Minkies. Here, at low tide, they moor to reefs and hide shivering on seaswept rocks, before their boats are eventually staved in by the seas and they walk and swim and then, with no food and no strength, supported only by their life jackets, feebly paddle south to where they think the Mary Deare must be.

Even when Sands and Patch reach the derelict hulk, Innes still has a few plot twists up his sleeve. But the real point is that by this stage the reader has accompanied the characters into a no-man’s-land of hunger and fever and freezing cold sea water and weakness and lack of sleep. In this extremity of human endurance, the broken beached ship assumes a horrifying and allegorical power. Nothing that dramatic actually happens aboard the ship but the writing makes these final scenes, as the Mary Deare founders deeper and deeper in the stormy seas and the characters reach the ends of their tether, incredibly powerful and moving.

Conclusion

In many of his other novels the quality of obsessiveness is structurally required to make the plot happen and, although you go along with it for the sake of the story, deep down it feels contrived and implausible: for example, The Killer Mine wouldn’t have been a killer mine at all if it hadn’t been for the quite mad behaviour of old man Mannock; or in Air Bridge, there would be no plot if it weren’t for the obsessive behaviour of Saeton who ends up stealing and murdering and lying to achieve his dream of building the new-design aero engines.

Here in Mary Deare there is the same structural feature, ie there wouldn’t be much plot if captain Patch just told the enquiry the truth and argued it out the legal way: but he is a man driven, haunted by the great failure which ruined his life, and determined to prove himself justified, whatever the cost. And somehow, in this novel, this plot device – the man obsessed whose obstinacy creates and prolongs perilous situations – transcends itself: it becomes a truly magnificent obession and combines with Innes’ fast accurate style and his profound knowledge of the sea and sailcraft, to give the novel a real depth and imaginative power.

The movie

The critics recognised Wreck as marking a new peak in Innes’ writing and so did Hollywood, who snapped it up. In 1959 they released a movie version starring an ageing Gary Cooper as the haunted, obsessed captain, and a fresh-faced Charlton Heston as the salvage man who gets caught up in the conspiracy. Interestingly, the script was adapted from the novel by English thriller writer, Eric Ambler.

Related links

1968 Fontana paperback edition of The Wreck of The Mary Deare

1968 Fontana paperback edition of The Wreck of The Mary Deare

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Strange Land by Hammond Innes (1954)

Darkness should be the same everywhere. But it isn’t. This was a desert country. These were desert people. We could feel the difference in the sand under our feet, see it in the brightness of the stars, the shadowed shape of the bare mountains. The chill of it was in our bones. It was as alien as the moon, as cold and naked. And the agony of that death-wailing froze our blood. (p.226)

Background

The novel is set in Morocco in the early 1950s. At the start of the 20th century France and Spain had carved out separate spheres of influence over the country. A nationalist party had been founded in 1943 and campaigned for independence. Only in the previous twenty years (from the 1930s) had the south of the country, where the final scenes are set, been ‘pacified’ ie subjected to French colonial rule. Tangiers is an ‘international city’ administered by Spanish officials. The actual inhabitants, the Arabs and the Berbers from the south, are cut off from the Europeans who cover the country like a very thin layer of icing which could be thrown off at any moment. That is the political background to this novel.

The plot

The story is narrated by Philip Latham who runs a Mission at a remote village, Enfida, in the south of Morocco. He had advertised for a doctor to help him and had only one reply, from a Czech based in England named Kavan, who had written to say he is qualified but with little experience, he just needs to get away and start a new life. Since he was the only applicant, Latham confirmed his appointment and acknowledges that Kavan will, rather unconventionally, be travelling to Morocco in a yacht owned by a man called Wade.

The novel opens with the port of Tangiers lashed by a storm as a motley assortment of individuals watch the yacht foundering, failing to make the harbour, and running ashore on the beach A man throws himself into the sea wearing a life jacket. Latham strips off, gets the police to tie a rope round his waist, and swims out to the fast-disintegrating ship to rescue the man they saw.

In the next pages, we learn that:

  • the survivor Latham rescued is Dr Jan Kavan, the doctor he’s expecting
  • Kavan claims the owner of the yacht, Wade, was washed overboard on the journey out in bad storms
  • Kavan is extremely secretive and paranoid; his own wife (Karen) had come to meet him at the beach but they both refused to acknowledge each other – What are they hiding? Who are they hiding from?
  • Once safe at Latham’s hotel and recovered, Kavan decides to pretend to be Wade until they can get out of Tangier and into the interior: Why? To avoid awkward questions and being sent back to England as a ‘stateless person’.
  • And he reveals that the dead Wade was a crook, caught up in various plots with a local Greek criminal named Kostos, which Kavan – and by extension, Latham – now find themselves embroiled in.

Dr Kavan

Kavan’s backstory is that he is a physicist ie a much-prized commodity behind the Iron Curtain. He was married to Karen before the War broke out, whereupon he was taken away by the Germans to work in Essen. Here he managed to smuggle information out to the British, working with French couriers including one Marcel Duprez. After the War he returned to Czechoslovakia and had two happy years with Karen before the Russians took over, at which point he fled to Britain.

There he is not only a stateless person but becomes a target for the Czech Communists who want him back and try to discredit him to get him deported. They denounce him as a communist to the British authorities, send him secret letters in code which they leak to the authorities, anything to get him deported back to Czechoslovakia.

Hence Kavan’s

  • seizing the opportunity to escape from Europe altogether to a remote part of Africa where he can be free
  • nervousness about giving his real identity to the authorities in Tangier
  • suspicion of even his wife, who he is terrified might have been blackmailed by the communist authorities into meeting him solely to force him to return

Heading south

Having got himself mixed up in Kavan’s elaborate plans, Latham finds himself using his knowledge of the country to smuggle Kavan out via the small local airport on a flight to Casablanca; he himself will catch the sleeper train and they’ll rendezvous there. The disparity in departures gives Latham time to be accosted by Kostos who has with him Ali d’Es-Skhira, a Berber nationalist from the south. Both of them claim Wade was carrying deeds to land in the south which Ali’s tribe desperately need, because it has water and fertile land to grow dates on. They offer Latham a lot of money for the documents. Of course, he doesn’t have them or know anything about them but it makes him suspicious of Kavan.

Latham and Kavan meet up as planned in Casablanca and catch the train south to Marrakesh (Innes does good descriptions of the sights and smells of the busy souk area). But they notice suspicious things – a boy who offers to guide them deliberately loses Latham and decoys Kavan deep into the souk, Kavan swears that a native is following them, and so on. Atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia.

The mission

When they finally arrive by train at Latham’s mission, outside a village in the foothill of the Atlas mountains, they discover a catastrophe has occurred. Just a few days earlier a big landslide buried the entire Mission, the main buildings and dispensary, the playground and olive groves, everything Latham has built up with his own hands over the previous five years. A friend, Graham, a kindly painter, has been killed in the disaster – his sister, Julie, seeing it happen from the safety of the old bus parked a little along the road but powerless to help.

Latham is devastated. He is now a man without a future and – as I’ve noted in reviews of other Innes books – the sense of a settled future is the Holy Grail, the Nirvana towards which all Innes’ books navigate.

We sat in silence after that, drinking tea, wrapped in our own thoughts. For each of us that landslide meant something different. And for each of us the future was uncertain. (p.101)

Confession

Latham finally pushes Dr Kavan to come clean: he didn’t take the job at the Mission at random. Turns out that, when he was doing his forced labour for the Germans during the War, he worked out a way to smuggle secrets to the Allies, using a network of Frenchmen. There was one in particular, Marcel Duprez, working in Europe but who had, before the War, spent many years in the south of Morocco gaining the respect of the local inhabitants and eventually being ceded some land round a village called Kasbah Foum.

As Duprez lay dying, he willed Kavan this land. After the War Kavan corresponded with Marcel’s lawyers to confirm his claim, but was forced to return to Czechoslovakia to work before he could do any more. But as the communist regime became more repressive his one dream was to escape to this Utopia in the desert. Now he is almost there. Will Latham come with him?

This is quite a shock to Latham, who realises he has been used, both in giving Kavan a job he never intended to take, and in breaking the law in concealing Kavan’s identity and smuggling him out of Tangiers. Moreover, the net is closing in. The newspapers are now onto the story that there was a second man on the yacht: they think it was the Wade that Latham claimed to have saved from the sea. Latham finds himself getting deeper into trouble as he has to tell further elaborate lies to the police. And during these interviews he discovers that the Greek Kostos and the nationalist Ali have travelled south in pursuit of him and Kavan.

Together these facts (his lying to the police, Kostos’ pursuit) as well as the devastation of his Mission, persuade him to accompany Kavan on the last leg of his quest south to Kasbah Foum. The sister of the painter horribly crushed under the landslide, Julie, insists she too wants to come along. So the three of them drive high up into the Atlas mountains, through the pass and down into ‘the strange land’ beyond.

Zone of Insecurity

After a vividly described journey through the mountains and desert, our gang of three arrive at Kasbah Foum. It’s a valley comprising two separate settlements each with a kasbah or old castle, a fertile irrigated area and an old mine covered by a landslip.

The existence of this mine is further news to Latham. Only now does it become clear that the whole novel boils down to the rival claims to this oasis and the mineral wealth which may or may not lie beneath it. They discover one Ed White, an American prospector who thought he had the rights to the land, is well-advanced on his plan of using bulldozers to clear the rubble of a rockfall away from the reputed opening to the mine. He had been corresponding with Wade about a deal to develop the mine. Wade had been corresponding with Kostos. Everyone is deceiving everyone else, and poor Latham is the last to realise it.

Who owns the land and the mine? Everyone agrees that the Caid Hassan (the local native leader) gave the land to Marcel Duprez for his services to the community, who then willed it to Kavan. But now it appears that European law doesn’t count – the Caid must re-confirm that gift. This is going to be tricky as he is at daggers drawn with his eldest son – none other than the fanatical Ali, the man who has been pursuing them along with the crook Kostos all the way from Tangiers.

In addition, our gang have to placate the local French authorities in the shape of Captain Legard, who doesn’t believe their (rather convoluted and improbable) story. To add complication, the body of Wade has washed ashore in Portugal but, since the authorities were told it was Wade who came ashore in Tangier, they mistakenly identify the body as Kavan. Which throws suspicion on Kavan-posing-as-Wade that he murdered Kavan-actually-Wade. Complicated.

Back with the Caid and and his son, Ali, there is a tense night-time ‘tea date’ where Kavan and Latham witness the tired old man and the fanatic son arguing over the future of the land, the Caid wanting to honour Duprez’s memory, the nationalist son wanting to keep the land for his people. This ends with the Caid sending a messenger to our gang’s camp with a note confirming the grant – but the messenger is attacked by vassals of Ali, who slash him with knives and he is only saved by the intervention of the Europeans. Slowly the tension is ratcheting up.

The backdrop to all this is that the locals are unhappy: the date harvest has failed, leading to money and food shortages. The American has alienated everyone by using big bulldozers instead of spreading his money around the impoverished community and hiring them as manual labourers. The atmosphere is becoming poisonous.

There are unusually heavy storms. These soften the mud and rocks and help Kavan and White clear the rockslide from the mountainside until they finally reveal the entrance to the historic silver mine. They are naively excited.

But when Latham goes to recruit some local men to help them remove the rocks, he realises the atmosphere has become violent. The heavy rain has turned the stream which meanders through the valley red with mud. The locals think the white men have poisoned it. First they killed the date palms, now they poison the water. The white man must be driven out.

Just as he’s reporting this back to Kavan and White, the Greek Kostas arrives looking harassed and pale, with bad news. The Caid has died. Ali has taken over leadership of the local tribes. He is leading a hundred men or more towards the camp, bent on revenge.

Explosions

And so on to the thunderous climax of the last 40 or so pages: egged on by Ali, the mob arrives at the European camp and start burning our chaps’ tents and sabotaging the bulldozers. Then they turn to menace our heroes. The cowardly Kostos had got separated from them, scrambling up onto a ledge of rock above the only-just-revealed mine working. Whereas our chaps try manfully negotiating with Ali before retreating, the Greek throws a lighted stick of dynamite at the mob – unfortunately, too close to the main store of dynamite – Boom! The whole hillside goes up, causing a massive avalanche, reblocking the mine, sweeping away Kostos, and plunging down onto Ali and his men. When the dust has cleared, the survivors are baying for blood and our gang have to escape further up the gorge and up the mountainside.

Repetition and frustration

I found reading this novel frustrating. Why doesn’t Kavan just tell the authorities who he is (the nominal reason is he doesn’t want to be repatriated to Britain, but he in fact creates much bigger problems for himself masquerading as Wade, who is liable to be charged for murdering Kavan). Why does Latham allow himself to be drawn deeper into Kavan’s deception, which involves lying to every police, immigration and security official he meets? Many of Innes novels convey a nightmare sense of characters unable to escape from repetitive and claustrophobic situations – but here the failure of the main characters just to tell the truth seems wilful and a contrived way to create a permanent sense of tension where there needn’t be one.

Also the rising tension leading to trouble with the natives could be seen a hundred miles off, but the characters seem pitifully, implausibly, slow to appreciate it.

This frustration comes to a head in the scene where – after the dynamite and rockslide has killed loads of natives – the Europeans spend hours climbing up the sheer face of the gorge and over the mountain to the piste out of the valley but then – walk back down to the valley towards the villages! Innes gives a reason – White, their scout, saw ten Berbers on mules going up the piste to the pass – our chaps would probably encounter them and may do badly – but walking right back down the track into the valley where thousands of peasants live whose husbands and sons they have just murdered – is inconceivably stupid of them and frustrating for the reader.

They go to the French Poste and wake up the French official but there’s not much he can do. And while they’re still discussing plans and counting their pitiful little armoury, a crowd of a thousand or so angry peasants, egged on by their womenfolk, march up and surround the Poste. Their ringleaders work them up to a frenzy. They start throwing rocks through the window, then one pokes a gun in and shoots. Looks like it’s going to be a massacre.

Climax

But it isn’t. Our man Latham walks out into the crowd, speaks to them in Berber and outfaces them. Till one shoots him in the shoulder (!), but still, he has planted enough of a seed of doubt to disperse the mob. There’s a stand-off for several hours while our heroes agonise about what to do next.

Then, in a kind of dumb repetition which is very characteristic of Innes, the whole thing happens again: the crowd surging forwards, the menfolk egged on by the women making their terrifying ululations, the rocks and shots through the window. It’s a peculiar fictional technique to repeat virtually the same scene, almost move for move. The Europeans are forced by the baying mob up onto the roof of the Poste and are preparing to meet their end when —

The paternalistic French policeman Legard rides to the rescue. He has ridden hotfoot from Marrakesh after receiving a garbled message before the phone line was cut and now rides straight into the crowd calling individuals by name and defusing the whole situation. Phew! The crowd disperse grumpily and – suddenly it’s a happy Hollywood ending. White and Kavan reckon they can clear away the landslide and reveal the shaft again. The yacht which sank at the start was insured so Kavan-posing-as-Wade should be able to collect a big pot of money. He’ll share the proceeds and help Latham build a new mission. Latham and Julia realise they’re in love. Aaah.

Conclusions

This novel doesn’t work for me.

  • I kept expecting the swapped identities theme to turn out to be a clever double bluff but it just carried on being really boring – Kavan pretending he was Wade in innumerable tedious interviews with police authorities all over Morocco.
  • Latham is meant to be a missionary and once or twice he prays to God but there was no real feel for the spiritual or numinous anywhere in the book. There’s plenty of travelogue colour description of Casablanca or Marrakesh – but nothing about the real soul of the inhabitants.
  • Which raises the biggest problem: with his customary research, no doubt Innes mugged up on and respected the traditions and culture of the people he writes about: but he too often describes them in a patronising way. The final mob scenes (which drag on and on) repeatedly compare the Berbers to animals.

And they scuttled away across the sands in ones and twos, like whipped dogs with their tales between their legs. (p.247)

  • The narrator and his pals easily forget that one of their own, a fellow European, has just killed fifty or more of the male wage-earners in this poverty-stricken population. When that happened it changed the entire tone of the book for me. It no longer seemed ‘a bit of a mix-up with a couple of bodies thrown in but hey, the hero gets the girl and all is well’ – which is what happens in most of his other novels. It seemed exploitative to kill off so many of the faceless natives simply for dramatic effect. Bad taste in the mouth.

End of Empire

The storyline seems all-too-aptly to summarise the post-War colonial experience: white men causing untold bother among themselves in their greed for buried treasure (here, silver), while failing to help or support the native populations whose land they exploit, and allowing the moderate older rulers to be swept away by a younger generation of violent nationalists. Much is made that the French colonial officers are struggling to bring a food convoy over the mountain to the villagers. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that it will be too little too late for this and scores of other European colonies around the world.

In 1953, presumably while Innes was researching or writing the book, the country had experienced nationalist uprisings, including attacks on Europeans in the street. In 1955, the year after the book was published, the country’s leader Sultan Mohammed V, was overthrown.

Several times the characters mention that the French outpost can’t call on any troops to help put down the mob because there are no French troops stationed in south Morocco. They have all been sent to Vietnam to put down the uprisings there. Premonitions of a world of trouble…

Related links

Classic 1960 Pan paperback edition of The Strange Land

Classic 1960 Pan paperback edition of The Strange Land

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Campbell’s Kingdom by Hammond Innes (1952)

‘There’s something about the Kingdom,’ he said slowly. ‘It clings to the memory like a woman who wants to bear children and is looking for a man to father them. Last year, when I left, I had a feeling I should be coming back. There is a destiny about places. For each man there is a piece of territory that calls to him, that appeals to something deep inside him. I’ve travelled half the world. I know the northern territories and the Arctic regions of Canada like my own hand. But nothing ever called me with the fatal insistence of the Kingdom.’ (p.89)

The set-up

Thirty-five-year-old Bruce Campbell Wetheral hasn’t thrived since the War ended. While colleagues have prospered and succeeded in life he has remained a lowly clerk in an insurance office. Until the day his doctor gives him the news he’d been dreading – he has cancer of the stomach and it’s terminal; he has 6 months to live. Coincidentally, on the same day, a lawyer visits him with news that his 80-year-old grandfather in Canada has died leaving him the barren tract of land high up in the Canadian Rockies, jokingly referred to as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.

Campbell only met his grandfather once, when he and his mother met him outside prison after he’d served a five-year sentence for fraud. He’d spent his entire adult life convinced there was oil beneath his bit of land high up in the Canadian Rockies, and his various shenanigans to fund surveying and drilling got him into various scrapes and then prison. His complete failure meant that Campbell’s mother, widowed from the First War, had to raise young Bruce in humiliating poverty. He was bullied by other children and, when his mother died, ended up being sent to reform school. He never forgave the shadowy figure who ruined his childhood.

But now, as he reads his grandfather’s will and his plain honest wish that his grandson continue his quixotic quest for oil, Bruce realises that, with literally nothing left to live for, you know what – he’s going to go out to Canada to find out for himself whether his grandfather really was mad and to see Campbell’s Kingdom for himself!

The plot

The lawyer in London had tried to persuade Bruce to sell the land to a company keen to make a good offer. But Bruce turns him down and travels by plane across the Atlantic and by train the width of Canada. Then by car and lorry through Calgary and Edmonton and up into the mountains to smaller and smaller settlements, all along the way meeting people who have heard of the Kingdom and the deluded old man who lived up there.

Finally, in the ghost town of Come Lucky high up in the Rockies, he realises the complexity of the local situation: before the War a dam was begun up by some mountains named Solomon’s Judgment. Now local constructors want to complete the dam and flood the land behind, including the Kingdom. Not least because, since the failure of the nearby Come Lucky mine, there has been unemployment and a crash in living standards. The dam means work.

A small queue forms of local lawyers, contractors and businessmen who all try to persuade Campbell that a) his grandfather was mad b) there is no oil c) he’s wasting his time on a piece of uninhabitable terrain d) he should make a quick sale to the dam people and clear out. In subsequent scenes he learns that, after mad old Campbell swore he’d seen oil seeping from a landslide, lots of townspeople invested everything they had buying up surrounding land, only to lose their money. Thus, there were multiple reasons for the locals to hate old man Campbell and, now, his interloping grandson.

But Campbell refuses all offers, defies all intimidation and persists with his dream, becoming more obstinate the more obstacles are put in his way.

I sank down on to the bed that my grandfather had used for so many years. Lying there, staring at the rafters that he had hewn from the timbered slopes above us, the world of men and cities seemed remote and rather unreal. And as I slid into a half-coma of sleep I knew that I wouldn’t be going back, that this was my kingdom now. (1972 Fontana paperback edition, p.148)

Conflict

The first 150 or so pages set the scene – depicting the run-down ghost town of Come Lucky in the Canadian Rockies with its muddy main street leading down to the lake, the mountain peaks of Solomon’s Judgment looming over it, the swaying cable hoist up to the half-built dam and the 10-mile-long bowl of Campbell’s Kingdom lying behind it.

It is wet and cold, a land of ice and snow and hard to breathe up on the mountain tops. On his first visit Bruce sets off to walk from the hoist to his grandfather’s cabin, which is clearly visible from the top of the hoist. But half way there a blizzard comes down with terrifying speed, he is immediately lost and begins to fear he will wander forever in an impenetrable snowstorm. The physical realities of the terrain and climate are depicted with Innes’ usual gusto and vigour.

These pages also introduce us to the large cast of characters – the inhabitants of Come Lucky who mostly rally round Peter Trevedian, the contractor building the dam, who promises to revitalise the local economy – and Bruce Campbell and his band of supporters from Come Lucky and beyond, who he persuades to follow his quixotic quest to find oil ‘in them thar hills’.

The last 70 pages of the book recount Campbell’s efforts to rally his ragtag bunch of supporters into completing a geological survey, getting a drilling rig up to the Kingdom and finding oil, in a desperate race against time as the rival team, well funded and organised, proceed with their plan to finish the dam which, once complete, will flood Campbell’s Kingdom, ending his dream forever.

It comes as no great surprise that the hostility between the opposing camps deteriorates from harsh words and confrontations, to open violence and then sabotage.

Dramatis personae

  • Stuart Campbell – old man with delusions that his patch of Rocky Mountains bear oil.
  • Bruce Campbell – his ill grandson, fought in the War, given only months to live, decides to come out from England to prove his grandfather right.
  • Roger Fergus – old Stuart’s generation, Stuart’s friend, honest old man. Dies.
  • Henry Fergus – Roger’s son, fierce, competetive, underhand businessman, determined to use every trick available to finish the dam and sabotage Campbell.
  • Peter Trevedian – contractor on the dam. His father invested heavily in Campbell’s company and, when it went bust, killed himself. Leading opponent of the protagonist.
  • Max Trevedian – half-brother of the above, huge, retarded, aggressive. Bruce stumbles into him up at the old cabin and slowly realises he’s a kindred spirit, also persecuted in his childhood; tells him the Jungle Book to calm him.
  • James McLellan – responsible for the hoist ie the cable lift up the mountainside to the Kingdom; part of the alliance against Campbell.
  • Old McLellan – James’s father, owner of the Golden Calf bar and hotel. As friendly to Bruce as his family ties with the Enemy camp allow.
  • Boy Bladen – son of an American actor and Iroquois mother, parents died, brought himself up, flew in the War till he crashed, was burned, put in a POW camp. Back in Canada he is scarred and scared. Becomes a firm ally of Campbell.
  • Winnick – based in Alberta, charted the Kingdom, friend of old Roger Fergus, helps Bruce.
  • Johnnie Carstairs – friend from Edmonton.
  • Jeff Hart – ditto.
  • Bill Mannion – geologist and ally.
  • Garry Keogh – rough, self-made oilman, agrees to help Campbell drill for oil.
  • the Garret sisters – sweet and lonely little old ladies Miss Sarah and Miss Ruth who’ve lived all their lives in Come Lucky, dote on Jean Lucas, and kindly oversee Bruce’s progress.
  • Jean Lucas – the heroine: lives with the two nice old ladies, previously housemaid to old Stuart Campbell in the (brief) summer months. Worked for the French Resistance during the War till captured ie has suffered, like Campbell. Tough. ‘Get back to Trevedian and tell him next time he tries to shoot my dog I’ll kill him.’
  • Moses – Jean’s dog.

The story is fairly gripping but nowhere near as melodramatic as some of its predecessors. Only in the last 30 or so pages is there a sudden flurry of events, namely:

  • finally, against all the odds and setbacks, unexpectedly one morning, the rig blows sky high because they have struck oil
  • within hours the valley starts flooding because the dam people have completed it and closed the sluices
  • Bruce and Boy ride miserably over to the dam to arrive just as the few workmen still there realise it is starting to crack at the base – but they can’t raise the hundred or so men working down in the valley in the direct line of the flood waters to warn them of impending disaster
  • in a split second decision, Bruce takes the cable car down, horribly exposed if something goes wrong, harangues Trevedian’s men that the dam is bursting, resorting to shooting over their heads and only just escapes as it in fact does burst, unleashing a tidal wave of water, mud and rocks as big as houses. Trevedian, his opponent throughout the book, refuses to believe the dam is bursting and so is swept to his death by the flood

In an unashamedly Hollywood ending Bruce not only proves his grandfather right, makes himself a rich man, defeats his opponents without actually damaging the dam himself, overthrows his antagonist, wins the gratitude of all the other workmen and the townspeople for risking his life to warn them, BUT also secures the love of a good woman, Jean. It is such a deliberately feel-good conclusion that I was actually crying at the end.

The oil industry

Innes has, as usual, done his research.

The scenery of the Rockies as it changes from the depths of winter to spring and on into summer are evocatively portrayed – the feel of snow on your face, the pine smell of the timber, the squish of the mud under the truck tyres, the noise of the mountain streams.

And there are solid factual explanations of the geology of oil-bearing strata, how underground soundings work, the law surrounding prospecting land, and so on.

And the text has a working knowledge of the clink and rattle, the weight and labour, of the heavy oil-drilling equipment.

When I went down to the oil drilling site next morning I found the rig erected and the draw works being tightened down on to the steel plates of the platform. The travelling block was already suspended from the crown and the kelly was in its rat housing. They had already begun to dig a mud sump and there were several lengths of pipe in the rack… On the morning of Tuesday, June 9th, Garry spudded in. I stood on the platform and watched the block come down and the bit lowered into the hole. The bushing was dropped into the table, gripping the grief stem, and then at a signal from Garry the platform trembled under my feet, the big diesel of the draw works roared and the table began to turn. We had started to drill Campbell Number Two. (p.190)

Competence The most obvious appeal of the adventure yarn is that we readers identify with the hero (and heroine), who may suffer setbacks but are always resourceful and brave enough to overcome all challenges and win in the end.

Abroad There is also the appeal of exotic foreign locations. The impact of this has diminished over the decades as air travel has become widespread and ridiculously cheap. Everywhere is accessible now. But in the dark years after the Second World War, as rationing continued, foreign travel was as remote a fantasy as decent food. These novels fulfil those fantasies.

Rewarding work And a third aspect of fantasy wish-fulfilment is the appeal of demanding physical work. Most of us work in offices, as the hero of this book initially does, and are as bored and frustrated with it as he is. In these novels the rough, difficult, physical nature of the work, man’s work, whether it be tin mining, flying cargo planes, whaling or drilling for oil, is something office workers often fantasise about and which these fictions deliver in powerful and convincing detail for our vicarious enjoyment.

Becoming a man

In England Bruce is a sick man with a terminal disease. In the bracing air of the Canadian Rockies he recovers his health – the cancer Bruce is diagnosed with at the start of the novel has simply disappeared by the end. The Canadian doctor who investigates, ponders the way some conditions just clear themselves up, maybe related to healthy living, or to the resolution of psychological factors.

The uncertain London insurance clerk becomes a leader of men, driving a team of some twenty grizzled locals and outfacing big business and its bully boy tactics in his heroic quest. He becomes a man.

But part of becoming a real man is becoming a couple, finding the woman of your dreams. It is not just about becoming powerful or virile. It is about becoming complete, whole, finding a purpose, and this purpose is always, in Innes, connected to the love of a good woman.

‘I’m not leaving you, Bruce. Whether you marry me or not doesn’t matter, but you’ll just have to get used to having me around.’ … Her fingers touched my temple and then I heard her footsteps across the room, the door closed and I was alone. I lay there, feeling relaxed and happy. I wasn’t afraid of anything now. I wasn’t alone. (p.254)

Only as part of a heterosexual couple can the narrator face the big abstract which always appears at the end of Innes’ novels, the Future. Innes’ protagonists start his novels on the run, illegal, wanted, chased, in jeopardy, with no thought except surviving another day. They finish the novel a) having survived a whole series of trials b) with a good woman by their side c) and thus able to think about more than just the next few minutes or next day – to conceive of Future time as a secure place where ordered plans can be made and carried out. All Innes’ novels end with a tremendous and heartening sense of optimism.

Through the window I look across a clearing in the cottonwoods to the ford where the waters of Thunder Creek glide swift and black to the lake. Some day that clearing will be a garden. Already Jean has a library of gardening books sent out from England and is planning the layout. We are full of plans – plans for the house, plans for the development of the Kingdom, plans for a family. It is just wonderful to sit back and plan. To plan something is to have a future. And to have a future is to have the whole of life. (p.255)

The movie

The novel was adapted, ‘with the co-operation of the author’, into a 1957 movie, starring a suitably weedy-looking Dirk Bogarde, partnered with the lovely Barbara Murray and an array of British character actors doing appalling Canadian accents (including Stanley Baker and Sid James) and James Robertson Justice miscast as the tough oil driller and forced to do a terrible Scots accent.

Names are changed to make them easier (the baddie Peter Trevedian becomes the easier-to-say Owen Morgan, the driller changes from Garry Keogh to MacDonald to ginger up the Scots ambience (he plays the bagpipes in a jolly scene which doesn’t exist in the book)).

Although the exact outline of the plot is retained, it has to be dealt with at a breathless pace to squeeze it into 100 minutes which means that every extraneous scene, the cameos with the old ladies, the descriptions of the scenery, and a host of minor characters, the protagonist’s changing attitude to his pioneering grandfather – everything which makes it adult and interesting and thought-provoking – has to be ruthlessly jettisoned.

The climactic scene when the dam bursts has special effects worthy of Thunderbirds. Instead of the complexity of the novel where Campbell has to threaten the men with a gun in order to get them to believe him and save their lives – in the movie Bogarde runs around shouting, ‘Get out of the way, the dam’s breaking’. The touching reconciliation with all these rough tough men who treated him so bad and who he ended up saving is cut. And Campbell is told he no longer has cancer, marries Jean, and is pictured sunning himself by the now gushing oil well, in 2 minutes 6 seconds flat.

Movies murder novels.

Related links

1960 Fontana paperback movie tie-in cover of Campbell's Kingdom

1960 Fontana paperback movie tie-in cover of Campbell’s Kingdom

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Repetition and excess in the fiction of Hammond Innes

1. Repetition

Quite often in Hammond Innes’ novels the same situation recurs repeatedly or with minor variations. This gives the books the effect of the classic nightmare where no matter how hard you struggle you can’t escape.

For example, in Killer Mine there is a long sequence where the hero is lured deeper into the mine by the mad old owner until he is lost and doomed to die. He is only saved by the loving servant girl. But she’s barely guided him back to the surface before he has to go back down into the mine to finish the work he’s being paid for, which leads to the intense climax of the book when the mine is flooded. My point is that the reader has barely recovered from the nightmarishly claustrophobic descriptions of the first sequence before he is plunged into the nightmarishly claustrophobic descriptions of the second, almost identical one. The repetition is odd, from a logical narrative point of view, but it does create a kind of irrational claustrophobic fear.

In The Angry Mountain the overwrought hero feels himself surrounded and trapped by his horrific past (imprisonment and the amputation of his leg) and by its living embodiments – Maxwell, Hilda Tuvak, Reece and Shirer – who seem to be pursuing him from Czechoslovakia to Milan, to Naples, to the villa on the mountainside and on to the climactic scenes in the monastery of Santo Fancisco. In particular, the evil Dr Sansevino keeps re-appearing, each time reawakening the protagonist’s sweaty nightmares of being trapped and tortured.

Similarly, in Air Bridge, the overwrought hero’s memories and experiences follow the same recurring pattern which he can’t escape from: his WWII bomber crash-landing, imprisonment, escape, finding an airfield and stealing a plane – then in peacetime stealing planes, being nearly caught, escape – then, at Membury, effective imprisonment in the airfield, until there is a dramatic crash – then stealing the plane on the Airlift, which nearly crashes – then being blackmailed and trapped by Saeton – then being abandoned at the derelict airfield in the Soviet Zone – then being effectively imprisoned by the RAF authorities when he makes it back to Gatow. At each point the memories of stealing, crashing, imprisonment and escape close in on him and make a cumulatively powerful imaginative impact on the reader.

There is a linear narrative to Hammond Innes’ thrillers; but there is also this circling, enclosing, smothering repetitiveness.

2. Excess

Innes’ novels regularly transport the reader from normal life into a tricky situation, which itself becomes perilous, and then is carried on into a sequence of evermore nailbiting crises. You feel exhausted. You feel the wheel has gone full circle, and the narrative has reached a kind of natural conclusion. But it is a characteristic of Innes’ novels that they then continue, beyond what you thought was shatteringly sufficient, into new zones of melodrama and tension. Thus:

When the hero of The Lonely Skier has escaped the shootout on the mountain top, the burning down of the chalet and fled with bullets pinging round him, finally reaching the safety of the town below, I was exhausted. He had escaped. Phew. But Innes pushes the narrative one step beyond by making him get up and retrace the journey of his colleague, Ingles, figuring out how he got his fatal wound and reconstructing the massive avalanche which was responsible for his death, adding a sixth act of further tension and fear.

In the Blue Ice the reader follows the sea journey to Norway, the various chases and shootouts in the whaling station, and then the long gruelling trek and ski across country which leads to the climax where all the main characters arrive at an isolated frozen mountain hut and there there is another shootout. Enough already. But Innes pushes the characters (and the reader) beyond exhaustion into another ski chase across the mountains to within sight of the eponymous Blue Ice – where two of the main characters meet their grisly end.

In the White South the characters are marooned on the Antarctic ice, only to realise their camp is being crushed by icebergs moving towards them. They only just survive by leaping onto a ridge on one of the icebergs, and subsist in two armed and opposing camps until they realise they have to set off to find the survivors of the whaling ship or starve. There follows a long gruelling trek across the ice in which one of the most sympathetic characters dies of starvation and exhaustion, before they finally find survivors who have sufficient food to revive them. Harrowing enough, the reader feels. But Innes pushes it one step beyond, by then detailing the voyage all the survivors have to make in small lifeboats across hundreds of miles of stormy sea to the small island of South Georgia. Not all of them make it.

In The Angry Mountain you feel the narrator has been harassed enough after being arrested by the security police in Czechoslovakia, then hounded in Milan, chased to Naples, and up to a remote villa where his worst nightmares come true and the woman he thinks loves him turns out to be a drug addict blackmailed into luring him to the hideaway of the doctor who tortured him during the war! Just when you think the situation can’t get much more intense, Mount Vesuvius erupts and the entire novel is transformed: everything which went before pales into insignificance as the characters now desperately scrabble not only to survive, but to rescue the hostages the mad doctor has trapped up in the ruined monastery. There is a long, nailbitingly intense sequence of entrapments, imprisonments and daring escapes even as the molten lava demolishes buildings around our heroes. As the sympathetic characters are all finally freed just ahead of the building collapsing, the exhausted reader sinks back, replete with thrills and spills. But then it emerges that disparate lava flows have now joined up further down the hill to surround and cut them off. The characters make their various ways back to the same villa where the original revelations occurred only a few hours earlier, though it seems like months, so much has happened! But even this is only the start of a final and more intense struggle for survival, with another hair-raising, last-minute escape attempt.

Same in Air Bridge, where the long, detailed account of manufacturing the new air engines – with the accompanying personal dramas which make up the first half of the novel – is swept away in the second half of the book as Fraser is blackmailed into pretending to crash an airlift plane and flying it back to England. Which is itself swept away by his feverish need to return to Germany to find and save his colleague, Tubby, who fell out of the plane after a fight. Fraser forces Saeton to drop him in the area where Tubby fell, and then battles winter conditions in the wild – exposure, hunger and exhaustion – to find him, only then to have to walk, dodge Soviet patrols and angry German lorry drivers, back to the safety of the British base. That’s enough for one book, I am exhausted. But then Innes has his hero escape from hospital, still badly wounded and suffering from exhaustion, and makes him link up with his on-off German girlfriend, and risk a truck journey deep into the Soviet Zone to arrive back at the farmhouse where Tubby lies sick – only to find the maniac Saeton has beaten them to it, which leads to a shootout in the frozen woods around the farm. That definitely feels like enough, but then Fraser, wounded in the arm, losing blood and close to passing out, has to fly the plane out of the Soviet Zone and do a guided landing in an intense rainstorm back at the Allied base.

It is a consistent element of Hammond Innes’ novels that they take the situation as far as you think it can possibly go; and then take it one or two nailbitingly intense scenes further.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Air Bridge by Hammond Innes (1951)

The man was desperate. It showed in his eyes, in the way he talked. He hadn’t given up hope. I think that was what made the atmosphere so frightening. He wasn’t quite sane. A sane man would see that the thing was impossible. But he wouldn’t. He was still thinking in terms of getting those engines into the air. It was incredible – incredible and frightening. No man should be driven by such violent singleness of purpose. (p.105)

Air Bridge is set during the Berlin Airlift, which lasted from June 1948 to May 1949.

It is a first-person narrative by another of Innes’s ‘everybloke’ figures. Here it is Neil Fraser, who flew bombers during the War till he was shot down and captured and spent 18 months in a German prisoner of war camp. He escaped, stole a plane and flew back to Blighty, causing quite a stir at the time.

But, like so many wartime heroes, he finds himself unemployed after the War and drifts into a racket flying old planes illegally out of Blighty to France, to be traded on to Palestine. However, his most recent flight is intercepted before it takes off, he legs it, nicks a police car, dumps it and stumbles through woods to a proper airstrip, where he comes across a couple arguing in the old hangar, the man gives chase, they fight in the woods and the man knocks him out.

This opening is probably intended to be mysterious and gripping but I found it confusing. It does establish the narrator as a crook liable to arrest by the police (like numerous previous Innes heroes) and therefore vulnerable to blackmail.

When I learned this novel was about the Berlin Airlift I was excited because I like fictions which tackle historical subjects and, although there are countless novels about the War, there are not so many about the murky post-War period. However, Air Bridge has a relatively small set of characters and the story is intensely personal, not political or historical.

The plot 1 – Membury

Despite their unconventional introduction Fraser ends up becoming friendly with the puncher, Bill Saeton (pronounced Satan), who offers him a job helping to build new-specification diesel plane engines. The plan is to attach these to the plane in the hangar so it will be ready to join the Berlin Airlifts soon after Christmas 1948. However, it slowly emerges that:

  • Saeton looted the design for the new diesel engines from Germany at the end of the War; though he claims the looted design didn’t work and needed extensive adapting by…
  • His colleague Tubby Carter, a quiet honest man who gets on with his job of building the parts for the second engine. His wife, Diana, cooks for the boys while they work but, in a couple of tense scenes, it becomes clear she fancies Saeton like mad (forcing herself into his arms, telling him to rip her dress off etc) which eventually leads Tubby to send her away.
  • The Displaced person Else Langan, who’s living at the nearby manor house, turns out to be none other than the daughter of the German engineer who designed the new engines (before he was hauled off to Dachau for having a remote connection to the Hitler assassination plot). She has travelled across Europe and England to spy on the development of the engines and, if possible, to smuggle out their design to a German company, Rauch Motoren.

This first part of the novel focuses very much on the complex and tense relationships between this cast of five. The infidelity scenes are electric; there is also a series of scenes where Fraser tries to seduce Else, at a local dance, then on a walk through the woods. The frustration Fraser feels when these fail and the bitter, mixed feelings of the orphan daughter German emigrée, Else, are memorably captured.

Plot 2 – the crash

Part one climaxes when the three men take the old Tudor aircraft into the air using the two new engines they’ve built and she flies like a dream. However, in an ironic twist, as they return to the base they find the undercarriage won’t come down, no matter what they do. Saeton makes Fraser and Tubby bale out then crash lands the plane, just about surviving – but the plane is a write-off.

Tubby announces he is leaving. A contact has got him a job as flight officer on the Airlift. A day or two after leaving he phones the airfield to say he’s got Fraser a job, too. It is now that Saeton springs his ‘satanic’ plan. He tells Fraser: Go and sign up, fly Airlift planes. Then one time when you’re flying over the Soviet sector, pretend the plane is going to crash, get the crew to bail out, fly back here to Membury, we’ll swap the engines for our new diesel engines, then volunteer for the Airlift, then return with this plane, but I’ll change all the serial numbers, no-one will know it’s the old one, and we’ll get to publicise our new engine design, and on the back of that fame set up an international charter firm and become millionaires!

Fraser points out every possible flaw in the plan, starting with the iniquity of dumping innocent men out into the Soviet sector but Saeton turns nasty and threatens to turn Fraser in to the police. Does he fancy another stint in prison? This is where there’s some very characteristic Innes writing, describing the pure fear, the claustrophobia, the horror of imprisonment which the hero feels, which breaks him out in a cold panic sweat. No. Not that again.

‘You bastard!’ I screamed at him, suddenly finding my voice. I called him a lot of other names. I had got to my feet and I was trembling all over, the sweat breaking out in prickling patches across my scalp and trickling down my forehead. I was cold with fear and anger. And he just stood there, watching me, his shoulders hunched a little forward as though expecting me to charge him, a quiet confidential smile on his lips. (p.110)

And so, reluctantly, Fraser agrees to do it.

Plot 3 – the plane heist

Fraser travels to the airfield in Germany and is shown the ropes (all accurately described by Innes who went and researched the locations in person). He is allotted a couple of flight assistants but, to his horror, Tubby is his navigator. This makes the Heist scene very intense as, once they’re over the Soviet Zone, Fraser fiddles with the engines to cut them out, and persuades the other two to bale out. But Tubby, on the verge of joining them, comes back to the cockpit to give Fraser time to put on his own parachute – only to realise what Fraser’s up to and the two get into a fist fight which quickly escalates as Tubby grabs a wrench. In the heat of the moment Fraser punches Tubby who hits his head on the fuselage and then, to Fraser’s horror, slips unconscious out of the gaping open door in the side of the plane.

Fraser regains control of the plane and flies it back to Membury where there are some pretty heated scenes as Fraser and Saeton accuse each other of murdering Tubby. In angry silence they switch the engines on the Tudor, alter the serial numbers and make other changes. This takes a few days, time for Saeton to offer his services to the Airlift and get snapped up, so they both fly back to Germany.

Plot 4 – the final act

Saeton flies a guilt-stricken Fraser back to Germany and on to the exact location where Tubby’s body fell out. As luck would have it, it was near the abandoned airfield of Hollmind and Saeton lands there. They’ve barely begun searching for Tubby’s body before Saeton announces he’s flying to the Airlift airfield, Fraser can stay and search if he wants. Berlin is only 30 miles south-east, he can walk it. (In light of the intense security, the electrified barbed wire fences and border patrols which we associate with the Iron Curtain, it is fascinating to learn that at this early stage it was possible to walk across the various zones.)

So Fraser begins optimistically looking for Tubby but the snow is falling, it’s early January, and he quickly begins to suffer from the cold, exposure, hunger etc. Until he finds Tubby’s helmet – then shreds of parachute – so Tubby’s alive! Then Fraser stumbles onto a track through the woods and evidence of a cart having stopped for a while and the snow all mashed up. Maybe a peasant stopped and loaded Tubby onto his cart?

Fraser follows the track to an isolated farmhouse and there finds Tubby, badly injured (broken arm, fractured ribs) being looked after by a kindly German couple whose son, who fought in the Wehrmacht, has disappeared into Russia after the War. (This couple and the abandoned room of their son which they keep as a shrine to his memory, are just one of the many memorable vignettes in the novel.)

After himself being tended to and recovering, Fraser promises Tubby he’ll be back and makes his way partly on foot, partly hitch-hiking German lorries down to Berlin. Here he is able to walk through back streets from the Russian to the British sector. He arrives back at Wunstorf airfield almost delirious but determined to tell Diana, Tubby’s wife, that he’s alive.

Imagine his (and our) surprise when the airfield authorities tell him the Russians have confirmed they’ve found the plane wreckage and a body! Case closed. In his delirious exhausted state, the more Fraser rants about Saeton’s complicated scheme the less the authorities believe him, finally carting him off to hospital to be sedated.

Is the Russian report true? Is the body really Tubby’s? Did the Russians discover him hiding at the farm and murder him? Can Fraser persuade a distraught Diana that her husband is still alive? As Saeton walks into the mess triumphant with the success of his new engine, can Fraser persuade him to risk everything and fly him back to the abandoned airfield so they can rescue Tubby? Will Saeton be punished for his Machiavellian plots or convince everyone Fraser is delirious? Will Fraser’s part in the whole scam be uncovered? Will anybody believe him?

You’ll have to get hold of the book and find out for yourself.

Sex

Innes writes honestly and candidly about male sexual desire, its all-consumingness and its banality. The scene where Fraser and Tubby accidentally eavesdrop on the latter’s wife drunkenly propositioning Saeton is powerful and convincing, as is Saeton’s contemptuous rejection of her. As is Tubby’s quiet, dignified decision to send her away from Membury but to stay on himself, to keep working on the engines, his one true love.

In a different way, Fraser’s relationship with Else is so peculiar and erratic that it carries a kind of conviction. She partners him to a dance, but spurns him, then lets him kiss her out in the woods, but then gets angry at the memory of her father, dragged off by the Gestapo and the way Saeton is exploiting his designs. Hot, then cold, then hot again. Confusing, like life.

Reunited in Berlin there is a stirring scene in her poky little flat where he watches her washing in freezing cold water, admiring her body while she watches him watching her. Somehow he controls his raging desire.

Without thinking I had turned towards her and then the future and Tubby was driven out of my mind by the sight of Else leaning over the basin washing herself. She was naked to the waist, and her firm breasts looked big and warm in the soft lamplight. (p.216)

A decade later Alistair Maclean and Desmond Bagley almost ignored female anatomy. Eric Ambler is too detached and urbane to do this kind of thing. Graham Greene discusses sexual activities but always with disgust. Innes stands out from the thriller writers I’m reading for his familiar and relaxed attitude to sex: it isn’t repressed or concealed in his texts, but it is there in a very male, very 1950s, very chaste interest in boobs – the curve of her breasts is a recurrent aspect of the Contessa in this book’s predecessor, The Angry Mountain, and the hero noticing the large bust and pert nipples of the heroine were one of the striking features of The Killer Mine, striking because that kind of candour is generally absent from most of the other thrillers I’ve read from this period. Two years after Air Bridge Ian Fleming would publish Casino Royale, the first of the Bond books, with their graphic descriptions of the hero’s rather sadisticic sexual tastes.

Innes stands clear of all these rivals in the thriller space. His candour about women’s physical characteristics and his male character’s lust for them seems to me clean and honest and is, I think, linked with Innes’ vivid descriptions of healthy physical exercise, the enjoyment of skiing and sailing which dominates several of his other books. While the main concern of the novels is with characters being nasty to each other, there is nonetheless a thread of pure physical enjoyment running through them which lights up his texts.

Anyway sex, or a pulpy soft porn ambience, tends, as the novels progress, to shed or left behind in favour of the ‘real thing’, the understanding a man and a woman reach when they are thrown together by adversity and suddenly see themselves facing a joint future together. The novels almost all have this trajectory from superficial sensual attraction between the male and female leads, to a ‘deeper’ understanding and optimistic sense of a shared future.

The future

Many of Innes’ novels close with an explicit reference to the future being bright.

His heroes are often worried, haunted, hunted men. The extremities of the plot often serve to ‘cure’ them, and leave them with a clearer sense of who they are and what they want. (These aren’t profound books; but this journey towards greater psychological certainty stirs something profound in the reader.)

Through the exigencies of the melodramatic plot the hero reaches a new level of confidence, about himself and about the future. And it is always connected to the relationship with the nubile female in the story clicking into place, often after a litany of misunderstandings and arguments.

This ‘future’ always means a) escaping from the complexity of the current situation b) hand in hand with a young woman the situation has brought him together with.

I wanted to say, ‘Damn the bloody engines!’ I wanted to tell them that they’d already cost the lives of two men. And then I looked up and saw Else watching me. There was excitement – a sort of longing in her eyes. And then I knew what the future was. (p.253)

Related links

This is a great evocative cover by the celebrated popular illustrator Al Rossi, but it is an idealised version of the text. Fraser is not a hero, he’s a crook. The girl in the story is by no means an adoring dolly bird but a tough ex-Nazi. And there are no men in the shadows pursuing him. The story implied by this heroic cover looks arguably more interesting than the actual Innes novel.

1953 Bantam paperback edition of Air Bridge (Cover Artist: Al Rossi)

1953 Bantam paperback edition of Air Bridge (Cover Artist: Al Rossi)

PS – Paradise Lost

The obligatory mention of Paradise Lost comes on page 114 from Field, the navigator who flew in bombers over Germany during the War, and has been involved in the Berlin Airlift for four months – ‘Ever read Milton’s Paradise Lost? Well, that’s Germany.’

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Angry Mountain by Hammond Innes (1950)

I stiffened in sudden, mortal terror. I knew those fingers. Lying there I knew who it was bending over me in the dark. I knew the touch of his hand and the way he breathed as certainly as if I could see him, and I screamed. It was a scream torn from the memory of the pain those hands had caused me. And as my scream went shrieking round the room, I lashed out with the frenzied violence of a man fighting for his life. (p.92)

Hammond Innes makes Eric Ambler look like Tolstoy. The tone is fraught and hysterical from the start of this melodramatic page-turner.

Backstory

The story is told by a deeply unreliable narrator: Dick Farrell represents B.&H. Evans, machine tool manufacturers of Manchester. He flew bombers in the War, then was transferred to fly supplies to partisans in north Italy. He was shot down, captured and a particularly sadistic Italian doctor experimented on his damaged leg: it could have been saved but instead they carried out three amputations – each one without anaesthetic. By the third operation he confessed and gave the names of the British officers he’d just flown in and where they were hiding. The two officers – Reece and Shirer – were picked up and themselves experimented on by the sadist doctor. As the War drew to a close the doctor, Sansevino, asked them to sign a document saying he had treated them well if he would let them escape. He starts giving them proper rations and one night helps them escape: next morning he is found at his desk where he has shot himself. Farrell, who couldn’t join the escape because of his leg, is told the two men were captured and killed by a German patrol, but not before Reece had written a letter telling his sister, Alice – to whom Farrell was engaged – how Farrell had betrayed them.

Farrell

All this explains why, although he has a decent job, Farrell

  • has a metal leg to replace the amputated one, which is uncomfortable and sometimes painful and about which he is terribly self-conscious and embarrassed
  • has frequent nightmares, night sweats, lives with vivid memories of the agonising operations and the guilt of betraying his colleagues
  • drinks heavily, very heavily – quite routinely he has to be helped to bed, passes out, has to throw up, or gets drunk enough to start shouting at people, throwing his glass across the room etc – he is a deeply damaged man

In all these ways he is reminiscent of the protagonist of Nigel Balchin’s 1943 novel The Small Back Room, David Farrar, who has a prosthetic foot, is in constant pain, has a bad temper and drinks to excess. Even their names are similar.

The plot 1 – Czecho

Starts in Czechoslovakia. Farrell is visiting a few factories to sell his firm’s wares. In Pilsen he looks up an old friend from their Battle of Britain days, a Czech named Tuček. Out of the blue an Englishman he knows called Maxwell tells Farrell he must give Tuček an urgent message: tell him tomorrow night, not Saturday night. Maxwell also amazes Farrell by telling him that Shirer and Reece, who he thought had been killed five years earlier, in that prison escape, are both still alive. In his usual fashion Farrell responds to pressure by drinking himself comatose and the bar staff have to help him to his hotel bedroom. In the morning the porter winks that he received a guest in the early hours but Farrell has no recollection of it. When he returns to the Pilsen factory to convey Maxwell’s message he finds Tuček absent and his room being searched by secret police. When he arrives for his plane to Italy the secret police detain him and take him to be ‘questioned’: he has to account for every minute of his visit and every word he exchanged with Tuček. By now he is quaking with fear and, back at the hotel, drinks the day away until he can catch the next flight out of Czechoslovakia and to Italy.

The plot 2 – Milan

But, when he arrives in Italy – in Milan, to be precise – Farrell finds he hasn’t escaped the nightmare. Almost immediately, Maxwell finds Farrell and tells him he couldn’t find Tuček at the factory because Maxwell had successfully smuggled him out of Czecho by plane. But when the plane arrived at Milan, Tuček wasn’t aboard. Did he come and see Farrell? Did he give him something? Has he heard from him?

Meanwhile, it turns out Reece is staying in the same hotel and, when they bump into each other, has murder in his eyes – he hasn’t forgotten the wartime betrayal. And Reece’s sister, Alice, is there too – they have a tormented encounter in which she says she can never forgive him etc; he tells her about the leg tortures but it doesn’t change anything – neither of them can go back to how it was.

And Maxwell then produces Tuček’s daughter, Hilda, a freckle-nosed young woman, desperate to know what Farrell knows, what did her father tell him, did her father give him anything? —What the hell is it all about?

Next, a Milanese manufacturer contacts Farrell and is keen to see him. Out at his apartment Farrell meets the seductive contessa Zina Valle. They are ‘getting to know each other’ when the man Farrell knew as Shirer from the wartime hospital walks in. Amazed and surprised he leaves immediately, as Farrell leaps up.

The contessa seduces Farrell. She is onto him from the start with a soft voice and alluring looks and compliant body.

The smooth mounds of her breasts seemed to rise up out of the shoulderless dress, the ruby blazed at her throat and her eyes were large and very green. (1973 Fontana paperback edition p.143)

But Farrell has been seized by a horrific thought: his friend Shirer and the sadist doctor Sansevino were always similar in appearance. What if… could it be… might it be Sansevino who escaped and Shirer whose suicide was faked, all those years ago?

That night Farrell gets roaring drunk and is walking up and down his hotel bedroom ranting so loudly about torture, Nazis, sadist doctors, partisans, beautiful contessas etc, that he wakes up the nice decent American next door, Hacket, who comes round to calm him down. After some chat Hacket suggests Farrell needs a complete break, a rest, a holiday. ‘Wire your firm you need a few days off, catch a flight with me down to Naples, the sun and sea will do you good.’ So Farrell allows himself to be flown south for a break.

The plot 3 – Naples

Turns out the contessa owns a villa outside Naples. Farrell checks into a hotel on the seafront and enjoys one carefree day before the net closes in on him again. He is surprised to see a former street urchin, Roberto, who the Allied troops used to pay to guard their cars back during the War, now dressed in a chauffeur’s uniform. Then amazed to discover that he is chauffeur to the contessa. He has, of course, been tailing him.

The contessa offers to take him and Hacket, a keen tourist, round the ruins of Pompeii. Farrell is horrified to discover that Maxwell and Tuček’s daughter, Hilda, have followed him to Naples. What do they want with him? And why does the chauffeur, Roberto, change his attitude to Farrell from servantly deference to mounting antagonism?

The contessa invites Farrell away from everyone up to her isolated villa on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Here she combines barely covered breasts with lashings of booze till Farrell almost passes out. But he manages to just about keep conscious, then to throw up, which makes him awake at the moment someone slowly opens his door and creeps into the room. Farrell slips out and down the hall and discovers the contessa in the same room where Roberto had been. Suddenly a lot of things become clear:

  • the contessa is at heart a Naples street urchin got lucky; she married the ageing count for his money, he for her sex
  • she is in love with Roberto the street urchin turned chauffeur
  • she has been blackmailed into seducing Farrell and luring him to this isolated villa by Shirer who is in fact the wartime sadist doctor Sansevino
  • and at last Farrell realises that whatever everyone’s after, Tuček must have slipped it into his artificial leg when he was out cold in his hotel room in Czechoslovakia! No wonder everyone’s chasing him.

 Plot 4 – the angry mountain

Farrell realises all this as he confronts Sansevino in a dark room at the villa when — Mount Vesuvius erupts! There’s a big bang followed by a continous fine cloud of ash covering everything. Everyone in the villa wakes up and rushes into the drawing room: Zina, Farrell, Sansevino, Roberto, when there’s a knock at the door and Hacket appears (!) he had been staying nearby to view the volcano – and then a few moments later, Maxwell and Tuček’s daughter, Hilda. There’s a fantastically intense scene where volcanic ash is coming in through every window and chimney as the contessa plays Faust on the piano and all the people in the room size each other up, weighing what they know about each other and what they hope to get from each other.

Until the tension breaks, the contessa snaps and begs Sansevino for her morphine: aha, so she is a junkie, that is his hold over her. And it is Sansevino. And before he can stop her she babbles about the other hostages up at the old monastery, letting Maxwell and Farrell know these hostages must be Tuček and his companion who had escaped from Czechoslovakia on the secret plane, then gone missing. So Sansevino hits her, hard, and next thing Roberto smashes him in the face and is advancing to beat him to a pulp when Sansevino draws a gun and shoots Roberto dead. Pandemonium – while Vesuvius flares blood-red with flames through the windows!

And suddenly the lights go out and Sansevino is up and out of the room, across the ash-filled courtyard into a car and driving like a maniac up to the old ruined monastery of Santo Francisco, and our heroes jump into their cars and follow him! It’s all breakneck stuff, littered with exclamation marks!

I gripped her hand, nerving myself for the dash to the doorway, for the groping along endless corridors and through huge, silent rooms expecting every shadow to materialise into that damnable doctor. (p.185)

The tension is racked up to fever pitch as Sansevino cunningly traps Maxwell and Hacket in the same medieval prison tower as Tuček, then corners Farrell on an ash-laden rooftop, takes Farrell’s gun and unstraps his false leg to reveal the secret packages Tuček had stashed there. Aha! So the treasure is finally revealed. Then Sansevino bolts the door to the roof and leaves Farrell to be killed by the advancing barrier of molten lava.

The next 30 pages or so describe in a high fever Farrell’s pitiful efforts to open the thick, ancient oak door. He is only freed as the entire house begins to collapse as it is crushed by the thirty-foot high wall of approaching lava! And then Farrell’s frantic attempts to find and free the others, trapped high in a tower of the monastery as the lava slowly creeps towards them. Preposterous tosh and absolutely gripping!

Someone to believe in me

Buried somewhere in all the adrenalin-packed frenzy there is a sort of theme to do with trust and belief: Farrell has never been a man since he was forced under torture to reveal the whereabouts of Reece and Shirer; a lack of trust compounded by Reece’s sister’s refusal to accept him, and then nobody believing him when he told them that Shirer was in fact the evil Dr Sansevino. This drunken failure, this man haunted by a sense of his own inadequacy, is strikingly similar to the protagonist of the Balchin novel.

But unlike in Balchin, it is all redeemed in a very Hollywood-style movie ending when, against all the odds, Farrell not only manages to escape his own collapsing building but rounds up Tuček’s daughter in the flaming village square, then is instrumental in freeing all the others from their gaol, and then – improbably but somehow fittingly – finds a mule which they hitch to an abandoned cart and which trots them out of the lava-threatened village.

In this moment of respite, he finds Tuček’s daughter, Hilda, looking up into his eyes. He has saved her. He has saved her father.

The blood was suddenly singing in my veins. She believed in me. She wasn’t like Alice. She believed in me. She offered me hope for the future… I looked past her to the gaunt remains of Santo Francisco and the mountain behind it with the great belching column of smoke and the broad bands of the lava and I was glad I’d been there. It was as though I’d been cleansed by fire, as though the anger of the mountain had burned all the fear out of me and left me sure of myself again. (p.220)

Except that, as they trot out of Santo Francisco they can all see that the two spurs of lava have joined up south of the contessa’s villa. And, covered with ash and exhausted, who should they meet blundering up the track but Reece who confirms that they are trapped, surrounded by 30-foot high lava flow which will slowly merge. they are doomed.

They trot over to the villa in the mule cart to drink, for the contessa to get a fix of morphine, for Hilda to fix up Maxwell’s badly broken leg, and for them all to realise that their only hope lies in one last-ditch act of heroism, when Farrell will have a final opportunity to convert all the unbelievers and allay all the doubts which have gnawed his soul away for five long years!

Will it work? Can he save them? Can he be a whole man again? Will he and Hilda Tuček live happily ever after? And what is inside the packages smuggled in Farrell’s false leg? You’ll have to read the book and find out!

Conclusion

Being narrated by an alcoholic nervous wreck means the entire text is on edge and over-wrought from the start. Every time he hears a car backfire or a door slam, Farrell has flashbacks of the grisly operations on his leg, the accusation in the eyes of Shirer and Reece, his torment at the loss of the love of Reece’s sister or some other psychic wound. You need to get used to this hysterical tone and the claustrophobic effect of the same characters popping up no matter where Farrell flees, and accept the book for what it is, a well-made and exciting pulp thriller, with a nail-biting air of tension, double-crossing, terrible secrets, a sultry Italian dame and a fair young marriageable maiden to be rescued. But fear is the dominant key, fear and panic.

I didn’t say anything and we faced each other. There was a sudden void in the pit of my stomach and the hairs crawled along my scalp. (p.156)

Related links

1952 Bantam edition of The Angry Mountain (Cover art by Mitchell Hooks)

1952 Bantam edition of The Angry Mountain (Cover art by Mitchell Hooks)

PS – Paradise Lost

At least the third of Innes’ novels which references Paradise Lost, comparing the red glare of the lava flowing down Vesuvius to Hell in Milton’s poem (p.147). ‘The whole night sky seemed on fire like a scene from Paradise Lost.’

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

Passage of Arms by Eric Ambler (1959)

The title is literal. This longer-than-usual novel is a very detailed account of the passage of a small arms cache as it moves from the communist Malay bandits it originally belonged to, via a succession of intermediaries, on to Indonesian anti-communist insurgents. There is little or no violence for the first 160 pages. Instead, there are:

  • slow, patient, thorough and convincing portraits of each of the players in the game and of their various nationalities, British, Indian, Chinese, American and Indonesian
  • and lots of detail about the complicated import-export regulations of the region which, surprisingly, make for an interesting and satisfying story and a vivid insight into the people, mores, fragile political situations and murky business practices of the Far East of the 1950s.

The beginning and, especially, the ending, have the light feel of an Ealing Comedy rather than a gripping thriller.

The story

Girija Krishnan, the Indian manager of a white rubber plantation, has had a lifelong interest in British buses ever since his father went to England and visited a bus factory in Acton (!). He has treasured the brochure of buses since he was a boy, knows all the specs and descriptions, and harbours a fantasy about setting up a proper British-style bus service in the Malay jungle. It is the mid-1950s, and the Malay Emergency is at its height, ie westerners and their workers are threatened by jungle-based communist guerillas.

One day Krishnan is asked by the manager of the rubber plantation he works on to go and help in clearing up after some communist guerillas who have been ambushed and killed by British forces. Because he knows the area better than the British officer in charge of the ambush he deduces the guerillas must have been based nearby. And when he notices some of the rubber plantation workers who are digging the graves not being surprised at the bodies, he further deduces the guerillas have been hiding out near their village.

Krishnan sets out to investigate and his patient investigations eventually uncover the cache of brand new rifles, ammunition, grenades etc which is the McGuffin at the centre of the narrative.

As the ‘Emergency’ draws to a close, Girija Krishnan contacts a Chinese middle-man, Mr Tan Siow Mong. Their courteous and roundabout conversations wonderfully capture eastern delicacy and tact. Mr Tan himslf contacts his brother, Mr Tan Tack Chee.

The Chinese dealers know that they can sell on the arms but only if they have first been ‘authenticated’ by a white man, preferably an American. Coming out of nowhere they would be confiscated. Officially owned by a westerner they can be transported anywhere.

So Mr Tan tasks his niece’s husband, Khoo Ah Au, who chauffeurs tourists round Hong Kong, with finding a suitable American. After a few false starts, Khoo chances upon Greg Nilsen, the mid-western engineer on a cruising holiday with his wife which is going to take in Hong Kong, Manila, Saigon, Singapore. Perfect!

Hong Kong: The stealth with which Khoo slowly manoeuvres Greg Nilsen into becoming interested in the proposition is admirable and once he’s agreed, all sorts of wheels click into motion. Mr Tan comes to see Mr Nilsen in person and explains the deal. Simply for agreeing to be the legal owner of the shipment for however long it takes to find a buyer, Nilsen will be paid $1,000. He tells his wife. They both think it’s an adventure.

Singapore: Meanwhile, Mr Tan’s rather thuggish brother has been looking for a buyer and finds one in the blustering ex-British Army Captain Lukey. He claims to be the front man for muslim anti-communist insurgents in Sumatra. There is some fencing because although they are brought together by the unpleasant Tan Yam Heng, neither of them like him. Lukey takes the Nilsens out for an evening of curry and drinking over which he slowly persuades Nilsen that they can dispense with the services of the regrettable brother, Tan Yam Heng. Nilsen phones Mr Tan Siow Mong who reluctantly gives his permission (he will still make most of the profit on the sale).

Intelligence services: Nilsen has the unpleasant experience of being approached by a newspaperman for an interview about American tourists who invites him and Dorothy for lunch, introduces a friend of his and discreetly leaves. The friend turns out to be the middle-aged Colonel Soames, who has a position with British Intelligence in Singapore and knows all about this gun running exploit. He drops various hints and threats to Nilsen, who is not deterred…

Until Lukey tells him the cheque he will give him needs to be counter-signed in person by a representative of the Independent Party of the Faithful, an anti-communist Islamic insurgency in northern Sumatra, in the town of Labuanga – which is a plane journey away.

Nilsen hesitates big time: this is the first time he and  his wife have detoured from their holiday schedule for this business. But Dorothy thinks it will be an adventure to go off the beaten track, and so they agree to have their tickets bought for them and to go to Labuanga accompanied by Mrs Lukey.

Things turn nasty

It is here, about two-thirds into the novel, that it finally stops being a pleasant travelogue with interesting characters talking about import-export arrangements, and becomes increasingly tense. Labuanga is not an easy thirty-minute hop across the sea, it is a serious 2-hour flight to a monsoon-swept, muddy, filthy oil port. Here Greg and Dorothy are guided by Mrs Lukey to an isolated bungalow where they meet officials from the Independent Party of the Faithful, who are deeply suspicious of this fresh-faced American. Then, as they leave, the trap is sprung. They are surrounded by soldiers. Greg has the sense to put up his hands, but some of the others aren’t quick enough and are machine-gunned.

Greg is thrown into a filthy gaol cell with the Pole who, it quickly becomes clear, is a fascist who served with Nazi forces during the War. The American Consul, Hallett, visits and makes the situation clear: Nilsen has been caught illegally running guns to a banned insurgency; he may never see America again.

Gaol break

But the novel now moves through Drama into Melodrama as the rebels stage an attack on the gaol to free their Major Sutan before he is tortured to death by the Sumatran Army. The attack is successful but, rather improbably, the British and American consuls ring each other and decide they need to be at the gaol to protect their nationals: all of which leads to a complex situation where, amid the smoke from the bombs and slipping in the blood of the dead guards, the American Consul makes a Machiavellian suggestion to the leader of the rebels, Colonel Oda:

  • as and when they come to power, the muslim rebels will need American and British support – helping free these three prisoners will secure their governments’ friendship
  • General Iskaq will probably make out a safe passage for them, in exchange for the return of his deputy, Major Gani, in one piece

There’s more to it, involving the exchange of other hostages so neither side double crosses the other. The whole thing stretches credulity to snapping point.

Final act

And it’s as simple as that: Greg and Dorothy and Mrs Lukey are freed to be driven to the airport by the Consul, there guarded by the Army till a Malay Airlines cargo plane ships them back to Singapore, they make it back to their hotel, shower and sleep.

Nilsen is a lucky man: he now has a better grasp of what he got himself into. He asks British Intelligence officer Colonel Soames for a meeting, and thrashes out what he should do. They arrive at a plan which is to get Lukey’s counter-signature to the famous cheque, cash it at the bank but, instead of paying it into an account where Mr Tan can control it, cash the cheque and hand the money – all innocence – over to the diresputable gambling addict, Tan Yam Heng. Which is what they do.

When the news gets back to the respectable Tan brothers -Mr Tan Siow Mong and Mr Tan Tack Chee – they go very gratifyingly mental. They travel to Singapore for a tense family discussion with the errant brother who has, of course, gambled away over half the money.

Mr Tan returns to Kuala Pangkalan with not enough money to honour his cheque to Krishnan but is amazed when the Indian brushes it aside to reveal his fully worked-out plan to buy some reconditioned English buses, set up a service, on condition he has 50% of the shares and is general manager. The Chinaman is impressed by the Indian’s astuteness. Maybe they can have a beautiful future together…

Conclusions

  • Ambler is wonderfully cosmopolitan: once again the hero is American, not British, and almost all the other characters are non-British. The earlier novels gave a powerful sense of the politics and character of Eastern Europe. This and its predecessor do the same for the Far East.
  • Like the other post-War novels, particularly The Schirmer Inheritance, the book is patient and slow-moving, with a strong emphasis on legal and official procedures, the processes which allow the scam or plot to exist in the first place. This conveys a tremendous sense of verisimilitude and plausibility…
  • … up until the last 30 or 40 pages where the suddenly violent ‘thriller’ element comes in. Shame. Shame he couldn’t have devised a subtler climax with less bombs and bullets and bloodshed.

Dramatis personae

  • Mr Wright: rubber estate manager
  • Girija Krishnan: his Indian clerk, who discovers the dead guerrillas’ arms cache.
  • Mr Tan Siow Mong: manager of the Anglo-Malay Transport Company which receives and ships Mr Wright’s rubber: Girija turns to him for advice on how to dispose of the cache.
  • Mr Tan Tack Chee: Mr Tan’s brother
  • Tan Yam Heng: Mr Tan’s other brother, in Singapore, a disreputable gambler: uses the pseudonym Mr Lee when he meets Krishnan, then later takes delivery of the arms one dark, tense night.
  • Greg Nilsen: American engineer and manager of a die-casting factory. An innocent abroad.
  • Dorothy: his wife.
  • Arlene: irritating, clumsy and rude American they get lumbered with on their cruise.
  • Khoo Ah Au: Mr Tan’s niece’s husband, who works as a taxi driver and guide for foreign tourists to Hong Kong and is tasked with finding a suitable American to act as legal ‘owner’ of the arms cache to make it legally shippable.
  • Colonel Soames: British police intelligence, Singapore: ‘discouraging the bad boys’. Tipped off about Nilsen’s activities, tries to warn him off.
  • Captain Lukey: disreputable ex-British Army, front man for the rebels in Sumatra ie potential purchasers of the cache. Persuades Nilsen to dump Tan Yam Heng and deal with him direct.
  • Betty: his stunning Eurasian wife: chaperones Greg and Dorothy to meeting with rebel representatives in a remote bungalow in the Sumatran port of Labuanga.
  • Major Sutan: official in the Independent Party of the Faithful.
  • Captain Voychinski: Polish trainer to the Independent Party of the Faithful.
  • General Iskaq: military governor of the Labuanga District; violently dislikes all white people after watching, as a child, his father be beaten and humiliated by the Dutch colonists.
  • Major Gani: General Iskaq’s cocky deputy, secretly a communist conspiring to arm his party.

British

Everyone behaves sensibly and maturely and intelligently until we arrive at Singapore and meet the British characters, who are public school stereotypes, all ‘old boy’ and ‘dear chap’ and drink too much, are shifty and permanently compared to naughty schoolboys. Maybe our men in the colonies really were all like that. No wonder the Chinese and Indians despised them.

The Quiet American

One page 104 their Vietnamese guide insists on taking them to locations which feature in Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American the Continental hotel where the big bomb goes off, the bridge where the body of the American himself, Alden Pyle, is found. Greg is outraged that his country is giving aid to Vietnam whose tourist guides are promoting a vehemently anti-American novel. It is striking that Greene’s novel, published in 1955, had made sufficient impact to be referenced in a novel of 1959. Or is it some kind of joke between Ambler and Greene?

Related links

Cover of the 1961 Fontana paperback edition of Passage of Arms

Cover of the 1961 Fontana paperback edition of Passage of Arms

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

The Night-Comers by Eric Ambler (1956)

‘They kill very easily. During the war of liberation I saw them. Men like that major. They smile and then they kill. For them it is easier to kill than to have doubts, to be uncertain.’ (p.68)

1956 was the year of the Hungarian Revolution, which was brutally crushed by Soviet tanks, and the Suez Crisis, which is routinely thought of as a key landmark in the decline of the British Empire. All the more striking that this, Ambler’s ninth novel, is the first not to be set in Europe and not among the murky politics of East Europe and the Balkans.

The Night-Comers

This is a first-person narrative told by Steve Fraser, an engineer. (Ambler had a qualification in engineering and many of his protagonists are engineers.) He has just finished a contract helping to build a dam in the fictional country of newly-independent Sunda, formerly part of the Dutch East Indies, and is looking forward to returning to England.

As with Judgment on Deltchev the book opens with a potted history of the (fictional) country and its troubled political background ie as soon as the nation became independent, corruption and official harassment and sometimes even murder became commonplace, especially if you were a member of the former colonial power ie Dutch.

Anecdotes about Fraser’s time at the dam project show how his team had to take on unqualified Sundanese army personnel and pay them off to prevent harassment, how a neighbouring Dutch planter was blackmailed, then murdered, and other stories conveying the sense of fear and malaise in the country. Further up north, large areas are controlled by ex-Army officers who rebeled against the independence government, led by a self-styled ‘General’ Sanusi, a devout muslim who has called on the faithful to carry out jihad against the corrupt Nasjah government.

None of this bothers Fraser much as he flies down to the provincial capital Selampang before catching a flight on to Jakarta. The Australian charter pilot invites him out to a local club to meet Eurasian girls and then asks if he’d mind babysitting his flat while he, the pilot, goes off for a few days on a job. Little do either of them know what is about to happen…

Sex

For the second time, there is sex in an Ambler novel. Sex didn’t exist in the first six or seven books but has suddenly appeared here in these 1950s novels. Clearly the atmosphere of what is and isn’t publishable had changed considerably between 1936 and 1956: now his Eurasian girlfriend, Rosalie, can have a bath, appear with a sarong loosely tied round her breasts, invite him into the bedroom, stand naked stroking her skin – a frankness about sex which would have been inconceivable before the War.

She took my hand and, leaning forward over me, held it against her breast so that my fingers touched one of the nipples. I felt it harden, and she smiled.
‘You see,’ she said. ‘I am not afraid.’ (p.133)

For the first time, the half-naked dolly bird on the cover (see below) is not a product of the illustrator’s imagination but genuinely justified by the text. It’s a striking leap forward in the depiction of human relationships and makes you realise how constricted and (self-)censored the 1930s novels were.

The coup

Out of the blue rebel soldiers force their way into the flat where Steve and Rosalie are sleeping. Because, they realise with dismay, it is above the national radio station and a military coup is taking place. Major Suparto, who Steve knew up at the dam, is managing the conversion of the apartment into the temporary HQ of the leader of the coup, General Sanusi. Somehow they knew Jebb would be away: everyone is inconvenienced to find our hero there. Now Steve and Rosalie’s lives hang by a thread. They are locked in the bedroom under armed guard but, at any moment, the twitchy Sundanese soldiers may simply butcher them.

There are further incidents: the building is bombed by loyal elements of the air force, and Steve helps patch up their sentry, earning kudos; the bombing floods the basement and shorts out the power source which Sunasi needs to make his radio announcements, so Steve is forced at gunpoint to repair it against the deadline of the General’s 6 o’clock broadcast. But behind these tense incidents, Fraser realises something odd is going on and the coup is not all it seems…

Improbability

The Dutch colony-Malay-muslim background is persuasively painted. The everyday corruption and incompetence of a developing country, ditto. The use of native terms – tuan, kampong, attap, boeng, betjak etc – adds flavour. The oppressive heat and humidity during the day and the relaxed, easygoing friendship with the Aussie pilot, the nightclub and hanging out with the compliant Eurasian women, all of these convince.

But the novel suffers a failure of plausibility when the apartment they’re staying in abruptly becomes the headquarters of the rebels. This privileged vantage point means the protagonist is able to guess – and then is explicitly told – that the rebels have been lured into playing their hand too soon, the loyal army units they were told were on manoeuvres, are not; the officers they were told would defect, do not; the air force and navy remain loyal: it is a trap, and Steve and Rosalie are about to be caught in the violent government counter-attack.

It is interesting to read a fictional account of a coup going wrong but it is hard to believe the coup leaders would end up confiding in an insignificant British engineer. It is a crashing coincidence that the one officer Fraser knows well – Major Suparto – a) should lead the requisition of the apartment and be a leading staff officer to the rebel leader Sanusi, b) turns out to be the mole, the traitor in the rebel camp, the man who encouraged the coup but is secretly a government loyalist. And it is too unbelievable that on a series of occasions he should tell Fraser what is going on, how the plot was conceived, what the military situation is, and so on.

Early in the book, when we meet him up at the dam, Major Suparto is an efficient but distant officer. When the violent requisition takes place there is murder in his eyes and he talks quite calmly about having to ‘liquidate’ Steve and girlfriend. It just doesn’t ring true that someone so deep in the midst of a fraught situation – and so separated from Fraser by race, language and culture – should suddenly start confiding in him at every turn, not least explaining in detail his reasons for betraying ‘General’ Sanusi while at the same time despising the existing government. It just seems improbable that a senior Army officer who is disciplined enough to play the role of sophisticated double-agent should suddenly start spilling information to a complete stranger – and a farang to boot – which could get him shot on the spot by either of his sponsors.

A realistic novel, I think, would convey more of the panic and fear and, above all, confusion about what was going on. Fraser’s acquaintance and then grudging friendship with Major Suparto guarantees him – and the reader – privileged insight into every stage of events which comes across as just a bit too convenient, too pat.

It is for this reason, rather than because of the (for Ambler) unusual, non-European setting, that I think The Night-Comers – despite many good things in the opening chapters and the scarily realistic depiction of street fighting once the coup gets underway – is among the weakest of Ambler’s novels.

Related links

1958 Pan paperback edition of The Night-Comers

1958 Pan paperback edition of The Night-Comers

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

The Schirmer Inheritance by Eric Ambler (1953)

‘Funny things some of these old inheritance cases,’ observed Mr Sistrom absently. ‘They make perspectives. A German dragoon of Napoleon’s time deserts after a battle and has to change his name. Now, here we sit, over a hundred years later and four thousand miles away, wondering how to deal with a situation arising out of that old fact.’ (p.63)

These post-War novels of Ambler’s feel slower, more elaborate, more careful and therefore a lot more plausible than the smash-and-grab pre-War thrillers. I thought The Schirmer Inheritance was starting off slowly, as Judgment on Deltchev does – but in fact it carries on slowly. Slow and methodical turns out to be its style.

The story

It is 1807, during the Napoleonic wars. Retreating from defeat through a frozen wasteland a Prussian sergeant named Schirmer deserts his company, rides for days through barren snowbound wastes to a hut with smoke rising. Confronts the inhabitant, a starving woman, she with an axe, he with his carbine. Offers food in return for shelter. She says what food; he shoots his horse: this is the food. They unite and survive, in the winter sow crops, he is integrated into the family as a worker, marries the daughter who had threatened him with the axe, has a son, Karl. More war brings the Russians dangerously close so he and family move west into Germany, but here he risks being identified as a deserter so he changes his suname to Schneider. Wife dies, he marries again and has ten Schneider children, but doesn’t bother to change surname of his one son, Karl Schirmer.

100 years or so later, in 1938 an old lady, Amelia Schneider Johnson, dies in Pennsylvania with no relatives or heirs. When police examine the house they find a tin under her bed with bonds worth some $4 million which she inherited from her brother, Martin Schneider, a soft drinks tycoon, who has no children.

A local law firm is charged with finding if there are any blood relatives. The press get hold of it and some 8,000 (!) people apply for the money (it is still the great Depression in America). The lawyers quickly establish that Amelia was the daughter of German immigrants. The law firm dispatches an investigator to Germany whose work is interrupted by the outbreak of World War Two.

The novel proper gets under way when, soon after the end of the War, junior lawyer George Carey is lumbered with the job of clearing out the entire basement room, which is overflowing with the folders and correspondence from this old case. He stumbles across a box left by the investigator full of intriguing papers and photographs, so he goes to see the retired and ill investigator at his home.

Interviews

This sets the pattern of the novel: piecing together the story by interviewing people, each interview filling in a bit more of the Schirmer family tree and throwing up leads of more people to interview.

  • Moreton: retired investigator. Had established Franz Schirmer’s marriage to Maria Dutka, births of Karl and Hans, his name change, his remarriage, his subsequent ten further children. Establishes that none of them survived to outlive Amelia. Pursues Karl through provincial German records: he had six children: tracked down five who had left no heirs. Which left the sixth, Friedrich b. 1887. He did survive Amelia but had died before Moreton arrived in Bad Schwennheim. But had a son, Johann. Here the trail runs dry, WWII breaks out, Moreton returns to the US, the legal firm drops the case. A key witness had been Father Weichs who knew the Schneider family. So Carey is despatched by his law firm to Paris, where he is provided with a top knotch translator, the young and attractive and ice-cold Miss Kolin, before travelling to Bad Schwennheim to interview…
  • Father Weichs: was confessor to Friedrich Schirmer. He had a bad falling out with his son and daughter-in-law and was sent away. He never met the son, Johann. But he met his son, Johann’s only child, Franz Schirmer, who had become a parachutist during the War, was wounded and chose to convalesce near the last reported location of his beloved grandfather. Father Weichs concedes there were more photographs than Moreton took and stored in the legal file: but they were pornographic, and he burnt them.
  • In Cologne, from old Army records, they find the full biography of Franz Schirmer, reported missing presumed dead in Greece 1944. Next-of-kin Ilse Schirmer, Elsass Strasse. That address is a bombed-out ruin. They discover it actually belongs to the neighbour, Frau Gresser. She tells them that Friedrich, the father, was the real brain, a trained book-keeper. Johann the son was a drunk. However, the family bust up after a fateful evening when Friedrich tried to seduce his daughter-in-law. Johann threw him out, but was useless without him. Meanwhile, she has the letter from Franz the parachutist’s officer, Leubner, informing Ilse that her son was killed in an ambush by Greek partisans at the end of the War.
  • In Geneva, they interview M. Hagen of the Red Cross who was in Greece during the War who provides background to the civil war in Greece, communists versus nationalists. When told where Sergeant Franz was attacked, Hagen says it will have been by communist partisans (ELAS) under the command of one ‘Markos’.
  • They travel to Salonika with an introduction to Colonel Chrysantos of Greek Military Intelligence. His subordinates dig out records which record details of the attack, its location and the partisan leader, Phengaros, who led it. He is still alive, though in prison.
  • They interview Phengaros in Salonika prison. He confirms his leadership of partisans but claims everyone who took part in that particular attack is now dead. The lieutenant accompanying them points out this is simply because Phengaros is protecting any living colleagues and offers to torture him to get the names which Carey embarrassedly rejects.
  • They go to the mountain village of Vodena, to the scene of the actual ambush, and find the graves the German army dug for their comrades killed by the partisans. An old man in the village says the partisans came from a nearby village called Florina.
  • In Florina they meet captain Streftaris who says he can find the truth. he passes them onto the morbidly obese owner of a wine shop, Madame Vassiotis. She confirms that Schirmer was in the lead vehicle of the German convoy, it was blown up by a partisan land mine, his body was in the road, her contacts even secured the burnt strap of  his water-bottle with his name on it. Since Carey hadn’t told the captain the name of the German they were looking for, in his legal opinion this counts as definitive proof that the quest is over. The last possible inheritor of the Schirmer legacy is dead. Case closed. That night he is depressed. it had been colourful and exciting…

So why, when he goes up to his hotel room that night, does he find it has been comprehensively searched and a man is waiting for him in the dark with a gun?

Part two

The man – incongruously a Cockney-accented Brit – puts down his gun, accepts a cigarette from Carey and says he knows all about his investigations. Would he like to know more? Well, be at a certain cafe between 4 and 5pm. Carey is there and finds his bill returned with a scribbled note: be outside the cinema at 8pm. He is and is collected in a battered lorry which drives him and Miss Kolin high up into the mountains, from where they are met and have to stalk over landslides, across country, up paths to a ruined house which is now the HQ of bandits. And into the lighted room where they are sampling the local plum brandy walks – Sergeant Schirmer!

The text then recounts what happened after Schirmer’s convoy was attacked by the Greek partisans in ’44, in a prolonged section of historical flashback which parallels the opening narrative about Franz’s great-great-grandfather. This parallelism between a German on the run in Napoleon’s Europe and in post-Hitler Europe is neatly captured by the jacket illustration of the 1953 Heinemann hardback edition I read. All is explained to Schirmer who is delighted above all to find out the parallel with his ancestor – both sergeants, both deserters, both wounded in the arm, both survivors.

My true inheritance is the knowledge you have brought me of my blood and of myself. So much has changed and Eylau is long ago, but hand clasps hand across the years and we are one. (p.269)

The end

Schirmer refuses his inheritance. Turns out he and the cheeky cockney British Army deserter who accompanies him everywhere, fought together for the Greek communist bandits for four years. But when Tito closed the Yugoslav border to them, the band’s days were numbered and they and a handful of others evolved into genuine bandits and bank robbers. They rob banks and financial houses with the inside help of old communist sympathisers, then retreat a few miles across the border into Yugoslavia where such a small gang is tolerated. To go to America and claim the inheritance would inevitably result in publicity, his photo being everywhere, and risk being extradited back to Greece for his crimes. Instead, he writes George a farewell letter and leaves along with Miss Kolin for parts unknown.

In the most startling twist, Miss Kolin who has been upright and proper and frigid and distant (despite tucking away formidable quantities of brandy at every port of call), Miss Kolin – of slavic birth – who has vehemently denounced German soldiers as murdering rapists, Miss Kolin who – on their second visit to Schirmer’s hideout in the hills, leaves a trail of coloured markers behind them to lead the Greek military to the safe house, Miss Kolin who – when her treachery is revealed – attacks Schirmer and throws bottles at him only to have him punch her, slap her, and punch her again so hard she can’t get back up – against all probability, later that night George hears Schirmer visit Miss Kolin in the room they’ve locked her in – and have sex with her. Loud enough to be heard through walls. In the morning she voluntarily leaves with Schirmer. His note even hints that she wants to marry him and have his children. She has become devoted to him. Funny old world.

a) It is a further parallel with the situation of his great-great-grandfather, who had the stand-off with the starving young peasant woman with the axe. One minute they were going to kill each other. Then they killed and ate the horse. In the spring they married and had children. Same here. Deadly enemies right up to the moment when… they fall into bed together!

b) The Cockney, Arthur, says it takes all sorts. Maybe all she needed was ‘a damn good seeing-to’ all along, though one is wary of such an outrageously sexist interpretation.

c) Maybe it’s an early example in fiction of a woman masochist. Though in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) there is some wild sado-masochistic sex. It’s certainly a first and a new note in Ambler.

d) The same year Schirmer came out, 1953, saw the publication of the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. Fleming’s novels were to contain large amounts of sadism and masochism. Maybe it was in the spy-pulp-thriller air. Maybe it was socially permissible to write openly about people’s peculiar sexual proclivities. Maybe it was now permissible to describe such things in print as it hadn’t been even a decade earlier…

Anyway, George’s quest has failed. The Schirmer Inheritance will end up reverting to the Commonwealth of Philadelphia ie the government.

George put the letters in his pocket, got his briefcase from his room and walked up through the pine trees. It was a fine, fresh morning and the air was good. He began to think out what he would have to say to Colonel Chrysantos. The Colonel was not going to be pleased; neither was Mr Sistrom. The whole situation, in fact, was most unfortunate.
George wondered why it was, then, that he kept laughing to himself as he walked on towards the frontier. (Last page)

Related links

Cover of the 1953 William Heinemann hardback edition

Cover of the 1953 William Heinemann hardback edition

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.
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